BUTTE – It’s fitting that on Christmas Day, rare identical triplets celebrated 15 months of life at home in Butte.
Overcoming a year of worrisome health problems, logistical trials and spending their first Christmas and their first eight months in hospitals, Nikki Whitaker’s three baby boys have turned the corner in terms of health and happiness.
The trio, plus Mom and two adoring older brothers, are now safely ensconced at home, celebrating daily the successful transition from sickly infants to normal babies for their age.
“It’s nice to be home and spend the holidays with people we know,” said Whitaker. “That was the hardest part – being away for so long.”
Cooper, Cameron and Robert were born nearly four months premature at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle in September 2013.
Robert, who weighed a mere 1.4 pounds, was delivered via natural birth at 24 weeks on Sept. 22. Three days later, on Sept. 25, Cameron and Cooper were born via Caesarean section at 25 weeks.
Cameron – now the natural singer and the goofball of the three – weighed 1.8 pounds.
Cooper, who has transformed into the natural leader and strongest of the three, weighed only 1.7 pounds.
“For kids who are born as early as they were, and because there are three of them, they are doing phenomenally well,” said Greg Schulte, Butte Community Health obstetrician who overtook their care last June, when the boys and Mom finally moved home for good.
They suffered typical preemie complications, including lung problems and fighting to strengthen their immune systems.
Each has had two operations: laser eye surgeries and for hernias. Whitaker reports that her doctors in Montana are amazed at their progress since then. Their vision is excellent now.
It took 90 minutes for Robert and Cooper to undergo hernia surgery. But Cameron’s was more complicated.
“Cameron’s was really bad when they went in there,” said Whitaker. “It took four hours for him.”
Early on, Robert and Cameron shared a hospital room at UW while she slept in Cooper’s room. Then a few months after giving birth came the first holiday blessing.
“I was in Cooper’s room for a few months until the day after Christmas, when staff remodeled their room into a triplet room for us and got us all together,” she said.
All three were on oxygen and feeding tubes simultaneously since day one. Whitaker, alone, worn out from giving birth and worry about their welfare, stayed with her children at the UW teaching hospital, where she said the staff was extraordinarily attentive and “amazing.”
Eventually, after improving, the boys were transferred to Seattle Children’s Hospital. Finally, Whitaker could catch up on sleep at a place off campus while her boys healed and grew.
Schulte, for one, is delighted with their progress.
“When they first came to me, they were all on oxygen, but since then have pretty much concurrently gotten off it,” said Schulte. “They’ve had all the problems that premature babies tend to have – eye, lung and heart issues.”
The Whitaker boys as identical triplets are well known among UW medical staff.
Statistically, chances are one in a million that a mother gives birth to genetically identical triplets, Butte obstetrician Glenn McLaughlin told the Montana Standard in 2013.
Schulte said the chances or “natural incidence” of spontaneous triplets is about 1 in 7,000. “Spontaneous” means the mother used no fertility drugs to conceive.
Whitaker was shocked to learn she was going to have triplets. On Sept. 17, 2013, she was airlifted via Mercy flight from Benefis Hospital in Great Falls to UW Medical Center, a world-class Neonatal Intensive Care Unit that is No. 1 in critical care in a five-state area.
“Spontaneous identical triplets are the rarest of spontaneous triplets,” added Schulte, “but I don’t know that number. I’m not sure anyone has a good handle on it. The numbers are much higher now because of assisted reproductive technologies.”
Whitaker took it upon herself to transition the boys, one at a time, from feeding tube to bottle.
Schulte said the boys meet all the benchmarks for weight, height, head circumference, fine motor skills, plus speech and social development. They are right on track, crawling and growing.
As they reached their 15-month celebration that coincided with Christmas, each baby weighed between 18 and 19 pounds.
“They’ve all graduated from their need for specialists,” Schulte said. “It won’t be long until they’re normal kids.”
If normal kids love to play, move around to test the waters, engage with one another and toy with family, then the Whitaker triplets have grown into healthy little boys.
They love music, they love to strum a guitar, watch “Thomas the Train” cartoons and one-up Mom on occasion.
“One day, they were all in their room playing,” said Whitaker. When she walked in, Cooper had Cameron and Robert in stitches, laughing joyously.
Mom’s sudden presence broke the ice. They hushed and looked at her as if to say, “Oh, hi, Mom. Nah, we weren’t doing anything. It’s an inside joke.”
As their individual personalities emerge, they’re on the verge of walking, especially Cooper and Cameron.
“Cooper’s the boss,” said Whitaker, who found him sitting inside the front-loading wash machine one day. Of course it startled her, prompting her to install a child-proof gate to the laundry room.
“Cooper is into everything,” added Jennifer Rautio, a cousin who helps watch the boys on occasion.
Cameron is the light-hearted prankster.
“Cameron thinks everything’s funny,” she said. “He can be serious, then he’s silly. He’ll stand and dance.”
Robert, a sensitive soul, is much more laid-back.
“He’s the sweetest boy ever,” Whitaker said.
Last week, Schulte ordered Robert back on oxygen temporarily for swollen tonsils. The first-born, he tends to be more fragile than his younger brothers, as a doctor’s goal is to delay early delivery of preemies as long as possible, said Schulte.
Because Robert had a cyst removed from his throat last summer, jagged scar tissue on his vocal chords has affected his cry and baby talk.
“We went back to Seattle at the end of July for his checkup to see if the scar tissue was growing with him or against him,” said Whitaker. “It was growing with him, so that was good. He’s really quiet. You can barely hear him when he’s throwing a huge fit.”
Chances are Robert may end up permanently hoarse.
“He’ll be able to talk. He’ll just be raspy,” Whitaker added.
Cooper and Cameron’s cries are whimpers, too, but louder.
“The boys do have some hoarseness, the flatness in our voice anyone can get with a cold that causes laryngitis, which is related to having the breathing tubes down their throats,” said Schulte. “It may affect their voices later on.”
The trio adores its attentive older brothers: Blake, 10, a fourth-grader; and Mason, 8, a third-grader. Both attend Whittier Elementary.
Whitaker said the triplets loved going to their big brothers’ Little Guy Football games last fall. Blake and Mason, who stayed home with family during the triplets’ long hospital stay, helped name the boys when they were born.
Telling them apart is another trick.
“If you call them by the wrong name, they look at us and smile,” said Rautio. “They know.”
The Whitaker triplets charmed their share of hospital staff in Seattle. Two obstetric nurses from UW Medical Center drove to Butte last September to celebrate the boys’ first birthday.
“When they have meetings, UW staff always uses my boys as examples,” said Whitaker. “They left a big impression on a lot of people.”
On a Christmas free of hospital room tubes, machines, interruptions and noise, the light of grace shone on the young family.
It was a holiday filled with gratitude and relief that three little boys, whose personalities are bursting out in healthy ways, are safe and sound.
For the Whitaker triplets, there’s no place like home.