Party Of Six

<B>Peter Van Sant</B> Spends Year One With Perry Sextuplets

Mother Nature dealt Joe and Erin Perry of Pittsburgh, Pa., an unbelievable hand: a full house, with six babies -- all at once.

And if you think six babies look hard to handle, try adding a 4-year-old brother to the mix.

"I miss the days when I was by myself," says big brother Parker, who brings the Perry jackpot to seven.

"I say to people now, 'I have seven children. Seven children! I have seven children. Thirty-three years old, I have seven children," says Joe.

"We're too young to have that many kids," adds Erin.

The six-pack includes the first born, Ian, who gets into everything. Next in line is Simon, who looks most like his father. Then there's Olivia, nicknamed "The Queen," followed by Zoe, who's happy and calm, and Josh, who's very laid back. And finally, Madison, whom Erin describes as "10 pounds of demand."

Correspondent Peter Van Sant spent a year with the Perry Sextuplets in this 48 Hours Investigates report.

Sextuplets probably aren't what these college sweethearts had in mind when they married and started a family. They became a family of nine, when all they were trying for was one more baby.

"I didn't want Parker to be an only child," says Erin. "I wanted him to have at least one brother or sister."

The couple turned to fertility drugs – as they had with Parker. But this time, the ultrasound showed six budding babies.

"It was overwhelming to think that this had happened. Not that it could happen," says Joe. "When you think it could happen, you always say, 'Well this isn't gonna happen to us."

The odds of this happening, even with fertility drugs, are less than one in a million. And Erin, at 33, was in for a difficult, dangerous pregnancy.

"It was a life-and-death risk for those babies, as well as a potential risk for Erin," says Dr. Cynthia Sims, who took the extreme step of stitching Erin's cervix closed to lower the high risk of miscarriage.

Erin was ordered on bed rest for months, and eventually had to quit her job in social work. "It was hard to stay in bed. Joe's taking care of the house, taking care of Parker, running back and forth," recalls Erin. "My neighbors are bringing me dinner. My sister's picking my son up from school. And I couldn't do anything."

What did she look like pregnant with six babies? "They stopped measuring me because I started growing out instead of forward," says Erin. "I was getting wide."

Erin gained only 26 pounds, but the pressure of six babies pushing on her bladder, lung and stomach made it hard for Erin to breathe – let alone eat. "It really hurt to eat too much food," she says.

Erin went into labor three months early at Magee Women's Hospital in Pittsburgh. "The rest, I guess, is history. One baby right after the other," says Dr. Sims, who performed the Cesarean section.

"I couldn't feel any pain or anything," recalls Erin. "But I could feel the weight just coming off my stomach, and just getting lighter – each baby that they delivered."

It took months of planning and a team of 42 to assist in the extraordinary birth. Six babies were delivered in about three minutes.

If you didn't hear about this momentous birth, this may be the reason. Their birthday, March 19, was also the start of the war with Iraq. And while the country was distracted by combat, the Perrys were celebrating six small victories -- babies that fit in the palm of your hand.

Ian was the heavyweight at 2 pounds 9 ounces. Madison was the smallest at 1 pound, 11 ounces.

"They're doing very well, considering the degree of prematurity," said Dr. Carol Gilmour, who's in charge of their care. "They're three months early and had an astoundingly good start, given the risks that can occur for this type of delivery."

The risks included blindness, cerebral palsy, and brain damage. Some couples, knowing the risks, choose to reduce or end a multiple pregnancy. But for the Perrys, who are devout Catholics, there was no turning back. "It was a lot of praying everyday just to get me to where I needed to be," says Erin.

The Perry six-pack, at nearly four weeks old, hold tight to life. They're living proof that it's the little things that count. The sextuplets, born three months early, still need round-the-clock care at Magee Women's Hospital.

To appreciate just how small they are, picture a diaper is the size of a slice of American cheese. They don't call it a "wee pee" for nothing. "I haven't changed any dirty diapers yet," says Erin, laughing. "I've gotten off easy."

The babies still haven't learned to eat, so they are nourished with feeding tubes. They also need help breathing, but given their prematurity, the babies are doing amazingly well. All except for Madison, the smallest, who's struggling the most to breathe.

"Madison has had a rough couple days. So we're keeping things calm for her as much as possible," says Erin. "No matter how many kids you have, if one of them is sick, you still worry about them the most."

"You worry because it seems like every day, there's not much improvement with her," adds Joe.

But despite the worry, the Perry family has five other reasons to stay hopeful: Simon, Olivia, Joshua, Zoe and Ian. And in a few weeks, some of them will be strong enough to go home.

Six cribs won't fit in the babies' room, which used to be Joe and Erin's room. So the babies will double up in three cribs, with rocking chairs in the middle.
"And end tables so we can put our coffee and Mountain Dew with a lot of caffeine to keep us awake at night," says Erin.

The master bedroom is now the old nursery, a tiny room with Peter Rabbit on the walls. "It's our room since I went to the hospital," says Erin. "Joe just moved what fit in there. And that's the smallest room in the house."

The other big project, however, is getting Parker ready for his new brothers and sisters. "I don't think he understands that they're all coming home even though we've told him, 'They're coming home. This is going to be the baby's room,'" says Erin.

But sometimes, seeing is believing, and Parker is taken to visit his new brothers and sisters. The sextuplets have delicate immune systems, so everyone, including Parker, is required to scrub before touching them.

On most visits, Parker shows all the restraint a little boy can muster. There's a gentle poke here and there, but the real trick is keeping his hands from touching anything but a baby. If Parker touches any other object, he has to wash up all over again. On this visit, Parker washes his hands five times.

But Parker can only be good for so long. And he is moved out of the room after he refuses to stop tickling his little brother's feet.

After six weeks, sextuplet Simon gets a roommate. Psychologist Cheryl Milford moves sister Olivia over to join Simon. It's a technique called co-bedding.

"And now I'm going to leave them alone and see what they do," says Milford. "They may feed better. They seem to sleep better, and once the babies are in a good quiet deep sleep state, their brains develop best."

By reuniting these siblings, Milford wants to capitalize on the bond that formed before they were even born. "It's not traditional medicine. What it is is human contact," says Dr. Carol Gilmour.

Dr. Gilmour says it's that human contact that also tends to stabilize the breathing and heart rates of siblings who co-bed – which is exactly what happened when Ian and Zoe were put together a week earlier: "They just grow faster, steadier with co-bedding."

Milford has spent 20 years working with preemies, and her experience has shown her the healing power of touch: "It's like watching this incredible dance where they come together and they really explore each other and they're patting and it's sort of, 'Hi, how are you, where have you been?'"

At two months old, five of the babies make it home. And now, Joe and Erin have their hands full, to say the least. But the family is not complete without Madison, who has developed a life-threatening infection, and is undergoing surgery at Children's Hospital to drain her kidneys.

But tiny Madison fights back, and after four long months in the hospital, she's strong enough to go home. "Madison is now home. All my babies are home. It's a wonderful day, until they all start screaming at one time," says Erin, and indeed they do.

Part II: Party Of Six