Motherhood has been a tumultuous journey for Kristie Stolly who suffered from septic shock after giving birth the first time to extremely premature babies.
Kristie Stolly can remember the shock and delight in hearing big news at her first ultrasound. Two words: "It's twins."
Then again, a second time, when she was pregnant a year and a half later.
And yes, a third time too.
Within four years, Stolly gave birth to three sets of twins.
"I only know what it's like to have two at a time," she laughs. "Three pregnancies. Six babies. The reactions are pretty priceless."
Spontaneously having twins three times in a row is considered extremely rare, experts say.
Like most days, Mother's Day at the Stollys' will involve a full house with 7-year-olds Harry and Oliver, 5- year-olds George and Albert and three-year-olds Leo and Maggie. But it also means dad Logan is likely to cook some crab legs, and Kristie may even enjoy a rare dose of "me time."
"It's chaotic, joyful, exhausting and incredible all at the same time," Kristie says. "We've had a lot of miracles happen along the way. We truly feel blessed."
But becoming a mom for the first time involved a journey so treacherous that it may have deterred many from doing it again.
"Our first twins almost didn't make it," Stolly says. "We thought we were going to lose both of them."
Preparing to say goodbye
At five months pregnant in 2012, Stolly came to University of Michigan Von Voigtlander Women's Hospital for what she thought was going to be a quick, regular ultrasound months ahead of her due date. She'd experienced some pelvic pressure the night before but didn't think much of it since she was seeing a doctor the next day.
But what was supposed to be a routine cervix check quickly turned into an emergency when the exam revealed that her cervix had prematurely opened and the amniotic sacs were protruding through– putting her at profound risk of delivering early.
"We knew something was very wrong when (the nurse practitioner) said 'don't move' and ran out of the room crazy fast to get a doctor," Stolly says. "They said 'you're being admitted right now.'"
But at 21 weeks, her babies would not survive.
"We thought we were preparing to have to say goodbye," Stolly says. "We were calling people asking them to please pray for a miracle. We were just lying in bed weeping and praying together. Emotions were so high."
Admitting doctor, maternal-fetal specialist Cosmas Van De Ven M.D., oversaw her care.
After several attempts using medical interventions, the Michigan Medicine care team was able to stop Kristie's contractions. Surgical intervention was not an option so Kristie opted to remain in bed to prolong the pregnancy as long as possible until the babies were safe.
Although there is inconclusive evidence about the method, Kristie remained on her back, nearly upside down in a tilted bed with her legs elevated in what's called the Trendelenburg position.
She stayed that way in the hospital bed for another three weeks.
"I couldn't move, get up to go to the bathroom or have any pressure on my belly. I could just turn my neck side to side to eat," she says. "I don't think they thought I could make it for very long. It's so easy to become depressed and angry and have no hope. But I wanted to give every possible chance to these babies inside of me. I was determined to do whatever I needed to do."
And just as she hit the 24-week mark, she showed signs of an infection. One of the doctors on her care team, Michigan Medicine maternal-fetal medicine specialist Deborah Berman, M.D., came in to tell her it was go time.
"She said 'call everyone right now and tell them you're going to have two babies tonight,'" Stolly remembers.
Berman delivered the boys by C-section, with Oliver weighing 1 pound 4 ounces and Harry at 1 pound 7 ounces. They were immediately taken to the Newborn Intensive Care Unit at U-M's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital one floor below.
"It was so emotional. There was just this overwhelming feeling of joy and love and hope," Kristie says. "But we were also scared. They were so tiny. Tiny miracles."
But three days after the delivery, Kristie herself – who was re-learning to walk after losing muscle in her legs from bedrest – felt extremely sick, throwing up, experiencing the chills and having uncontrollable shaking.
The infection had reached her blood stream and sent her into septic shock.
She was immediately taken to the Intensive Care Unit where she was given the heaviest antibiotics possible to fight off the infection. The situation was so severe that the family called the priest who had been following them, Father Lou Eberhart, to read her the last rites.
"My whole body had just shut down," she says. "I kept saying 'I don't want to die.' I told my husband I didn't think I was going to make it and to take care of our babies."
The antibiotics eventually worked and after 24 hours in the ICU, Kristie was stable enough to return to the same side of the hospital as her newborns.
But for the next three weeks she couldn't eat or drink regularly, only able to absorb nutrients through an IV because of a painful condition called ileus, which prevents movement in the intestines. And during brief windows she was able to go see her babies in the NICU.
"We are so grateful that we were at U-M," Kristie says. "It's more than a hospital. The doctors, nurses and staff just went above and beyond to take care of us. I've made lifelong friends with the teams there and feel like we owe them so much."
After five months in the NICU, Harry and Oliver were finally able to go home. At their own house, they remained on oxygen for another five months.
Just after the twins' first birthday, the Stollys learned life was about to change even more: Harry and Oliver were going to be big brothers.
And again, the ultrasound showed double the bundle.
"They told me there were two heartbeats. I could not stop smiling," Kristie says. "Everyone was like 'with everything that happened last time, you want to do this again?' But I was so joyful. All I could think about was what blessings. There are two of them."
But she and her husband knew logistics would be a challenge since the boys still needed regular therapy appointments for feeding issues. There were also concerns about how they would manage another NICU stay if these babies required it as well.
This time around, the U-M maternal fetal medicine team used a cerclage, a stitch to help keep the cervix closed and prevent early labor. George and Albert were born at 36 weeks with matching blond hair and blue eyes, nearly looking identical.
And when the second pair of boys were about 18 months old, the couple experienced déjà vu.
Kristie was pregnant again.
"I was still pumping and waking up every night. Everyone was in diapers. It was a tiring time," she says. "The third pregnancy was definitely more of a surprise than the other two times."
The night before the ultrasound, Kristie and Logan joked about whether or not it would be twins again.
No way, they decided.
When Kristie went to see U-M maternal-fetal specialist Mark Chames, M.D., who had delivered George and Albert, he started explaining how different having one baby would be compared to two.
She replied "how do you know it's just one?"
Sure enough, the ultrasound showed another duo.
"He couldn't believe it," Kristie says. "He asked for permission to share the news with the other providers who knew me. A few minutes later, Dr. Berman rushed over and gave me a big hug. It was pretty unbelievable."
And in February, 2016, Leo was born along with red-haired sister Maggie. The couple opted not to learn the gender of any of their babies before birth.
"First girl. So that part was new," Kristie laughs. "We loved having the gender be a surprise each time."
Chaos and joy
Today, Kristie says she soaks up the joyful moments but also embraces the tough ones.
The biggest lesson: learning to let things go. She accepted that park, zoo and library outings with six kids just wasn't going to happen for example. And that some pajama and movie days were OK. Or that three pots of coffee were sometimes necessary.
Saying yes to help has also been key, including dinners organized by her church and babysitting help from family and friends. She and her husband also sometimes split shifts for events, such as attending separate church services while the other spouse stays home.
Kristie says she loves watching each of her children's personalities show up differently and celebrating how far they've come – especially Oliver who needed surgery at Michigan Medicine because of brain swelling from a severe brain bleed after birth.
Oliver was diagnosed with mild cerebral palsy, and there was uncertainty about whether he'd walk or talk. Now in kindergarten, he is walking, talking and known for his "photographic memory" and love for books.
The couple, who has a strong faith, believes they were given "all of these miracles" for a reason, Kristie says.
But being a mother of six comes with equal parts bliss and stress.
"It's always crazy around here," Kristie says. "You've got to give yourself grace and patience and know that some days are going to be extremely hard. I had to learn not to feel guilty if I didn't get outside on a beautiful day or if I turned the TV on for a few minutes so I could take a quick shower.
"It's OK for moms to cry and feel overwhelmed sometimes but they should reach out to other moms and find a community that will support them.
"God has entrusted me to be the mother of six beautiful kids and these are everlasting relationships I'll have for the rest of my life. I'm raising them to be their own human beings," she adds. "They are all such blessings and I would lay my life down for them. They are my mark on the world."
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