Pt. 2 - He's In The Waiting: Our Infertility Journey
Updated: May 9, 2020
God blessed us with 3 beautiful children. What many don't know is what it took to get them here; a lot of patience and a lot of Jesus. This is Part 2 of our story.
Not long after we discovered that Alicia was pregnant, life took over. In the beginning, everything was smooth for the most part. Then, during her second trimester, all hell broke loose. The biggest obstacle came as a result of my mother's failing health. We actually had to move out of our home and move into my mother's home and "air-mattress" it. As we discussed in the first part of this blog, my mother was battling stage IV cancer during this season. She needed 24 hour care, so we had to supplement her nurse and hospice care team. We were trying to celebrate pregnancy, but caring for a dying parent had a way of taking the joy out of the home.
My mother passed away in January of 2009. Instead of celebrating our wedding anniversary that year, we held 2 military funerals for her. Afterwards, we were immersed in the legal process of handling her estate which meant navigating tensions between friends and family members. Alicia and I inherited my mother's home, which was a blessing but also a curse. Because we still owned our own home, we ended up paying mortgages for two homes for months, even after the kids were born. We were financially strapped. Sleep was hard to come by and it eventually took a toll.
We experienced another loss during this time as well, but this time it was a friend. Friends of ours who were expecting their first child at the same time we were expecting the twins experienced an unimaginable tragedy. After going into labor, the baby was delivered through heavy complications which required immediate medical intervention to save the baby's life. While that was happening, mom unexpectedly and tragically passed away shortly after delivering him. Understandably, Alicia was unable to attend her memorial service.
In addition to all of this, we were both working demanding careers in law enforcement. Granted, we had a great law enforcement family around us who offered a ton of support. Still, the job itself was very demanding. In fact, it was during this season that I was actually "benched" by a doctor and declared unfit for duty due to concerns of stress induced hyper-tension and an uncontrolled arrhythmia in my heart. I was 24 years old and had been deemed high-risk for stroke. I didn't feel stressed, but my body was telling on me. Likewise, Alicia was internalizing her stress. We didn't know it at the time, but her body was about to tell on her too.
Due to some hereditary health concerns and the fact that we were having twins, doctors had already considered the pregnancy high risk. As a consequence, we were required to complete a labor class and a NICU tour early on in the pregnancy.
On April 7th, we went in for Alicia's 27th week check up. The purpose of the appointment was to check on the twins' hearts. During the appointment, our specialist asked a handful of routine questions to Alicia. They weren't thrilled with some of her answers and decided to do a precautionary ultrasound. That's when things took an unexpected turn.
I'll never forget the look on the ultrasound tech's face as she began the ultrasound. There's just something unsettling about seeing the blood rush out of your medical professional's cheeks. Almost immediately, she excused herself and returned with a doctor. The doctor quickly borrowed the same concerned look on his face. To break the silence, and quite frankly the tension in the room, I started verbally labeling my wife's anatomy.
"That's the uterus there huh?" I said as I pointed to the fuzzy black and white ultrasound monitor.
"Yes." the doctor replied.
"And that there... what's that at the bottom? The cervix, yeah?" I continued.
"That's a head." he said in a serious tone.
Now, I'm no doctor, but from where the ultrasound wand was and where the head was indicated to have been, I knew that something was wrong. In fact, something was really wrong. It turned out that one of the babies was much lower than they should have been. And not just lower, but literally inches away from being delivered. Alicia was dilated and in pre-term labor.
This would be a good time to explain that my wife has a ridiculously high pain tolerance. When the doctors asked her how she wasn't able to feel the children literally trying to crawl out of her womb, she explained that she thought the kids were simply kicking and very active. The contraction monitor revealed that what Alicia thought were kicks were actually full on contractions. *sigh*
The next thing we knew, Alicia was in a wheelchair being rushed to labor and delivery. Once we arrived, she was strapped to a bed and subsequently inverted with her head pointed towards the ground. Initially, we were told that they were going to slow down Alicia's contractions and the labor. Alicia was to be kept on bed rest at the hospital for at least 4 weeks until the babies could be safely delivered. She was given a full cocktail of drugs via needles of varying lengths and told to lie still. Everything was happening around us so quickly. Through it all, you would think that Alicia would be concerned somewhat, but in actuality, she spent the first hour or so in bed mumbling her frustrations about not being able to go to work.
As the hours ticked away, Alicia's timeline for bed rest decreased rapidly. What was supposed to be 4 weeks quickly turned to hopes of 2 weeks as doctors failed to slow Alicia's labor. By 5pm that evening, our 2 week timeline became 1 week. Hours later, 1 week very quickly became "any day now." By 12am in the morning, I was in a hospital room with my wife counting minutes between contractions. By 6am that morning, we learned that we were going to be parents that day. Less than 24 hours after showing up at the hospital for a check-up, Alicia was being prepped for a c-section to deliver our premature babies. We were told that they would not survive a natural birth because of how small they were. We were told that in addition to being very small and very weak, that their lungs were under-developed, and the echo's done on their hearts revealed potential concerns for at least one of the kid's heart valves. They didn't want to waste any time.
After a blistering fast c-section, both girls were delivered in an operating room with no less than 1 dozen medical staff in it. Olivia came out first and despite her premature state, she was doing OK with her breathing, but would fade out while trying to cry because her body hadn't yet learned to cry and breathe at the same time. She was 2lbs in weight, about the size of a small Dasani water bottle.
She was followed by her sister Ryan. She also weighed 2 lbs, but was noticeably smaller than Olivia. Unlike her sister, Ryan didn't come out crying. She was very quiet, blue and limp. She was taken to a pre-staged pediatric crash cart where nurses began working feverishly to get her breathing and to warm her up. As she was being intubated, I asked the doctor to give Alicia an opportunity to see both kids, in case... well you understand, given the circumstances. He obliged, but warned, "After she sees the kids, we've got to run to the NICU. Keep up."
Both girls were already connected to more machines than I could understand. They wheeled both girls over close to Alicia on the pediatric crash carts. Alicia was a little loopy from the meds, and was lying on the operating table getting sewn back together. Awkward side note; my favorite movie is the Wizard of Oz. I've seen it, without exaggeration, hundreds of times. I've never shared this, but I did have a moment while Alicia was in operating room where I thought to myself, "Alicia looks a lot like Scarecrow being stuffed back together in the Merry Ole' Land of Oz." I know. It's bad. Shall we continue?
Both girls were swaddled to look as "normal" as possible. Olivia was first lifted off the table, held near Alicia's face and posed for a picture. The nurse then laid Olivia back on a cart, plugged her little body back up to the machines and a team of 6 sprinted out of a back door pushing the cart along the way.
They then took Ryan and held her near Alicia's face for a brief moment. She was then placed back onto the cart, plugged up and evacuated from the room just as her sister was. As they ran, I was told to keep up which means that I didn't have time to say goodbye to Alicia who would be in recovery for the next few hours before I would see her again.
We sprinted down a few hallways and found ourselves in the NICU in no time at all. Olivia was already being worked on. Apparently, her conditioned had worsened between the OR and the NICU. Within that short period of time, she had been intubated because she was struggling to breathe. She had IV's in her legs or feet if I remember correctly, and she was being prepped for a blood transfusion. Ryan would be given the same treatment.
The NICU would be our home for the next several months. It was quiet, dark and agonizing to be in that room. Out of frustration, I was a horrible NICU dad to the nurses and was almost put out of there a few times. I usually arrived with a scowl on my face, but it was the only way I knew how to walk through fear and frustration. It wasn't their fault and I knew that, especially considering that they were the ones fighting to keep our babies alive. Still, for the first few weeks, we could see the kids but couldn't hold them. Everyday whenever they would eat via their feeding tubes, they would stop breathing, their hearts would slow down and occasionally stop which resulted in them needing to be stimulated or resuscitated. We were told daily that it was likely the kids wouldn't survive and that if they did, they would be disabled or developmentally delayed. We had absolutely no control over what was happening and we were terrified.
The worst part came after Alicia was released from the hospital and we had to go home for the first time without the kids. I remember sitting in the nursery we put together for them. Right there in the middle of the floor between both cribs, against the backdrop of handmade wooden signs with the kid's names on the wall just behind us. We just sat there, together, but very alone. It raised questions in us, one in particular.
As we sat and gathered ourselves, Alicia asked, "Why would God bless us with the gift of children and then threaten to take it away?" It was anguish and fear talking, but it spoke loudly nonetheless.
In reality, we knew that it wasn't God's fault. We also knew that God was walking through it with us. The truth was, it was us who had stopped paying attention and speaking to Him. Leading up to the pregnancy, we had to get to a place where we both had to give our desire for children to Him. After He blessed us with pregnancy, life happened. We prayed a little less, went to church a little less, spent time with Him a little less. In that moment, I remember sitting on that nursery floor and just feeling guilty. I felt guilty because I felt that we had let God down. I told my wife, in not so many words, that it took God to get us where we were, and it was going to take God to get us out of the place we were in.
Following that night together, we adopted a new posture. We prayed together and gave the twins, their prognosis, and the doctor's discouraging words back over to God. We recommitted to Him and to each other, and we made the decision to have faith in hope instead of faith in fear.
In the weeks that followed, the kids would begin to grow and heal incredibly fast. It wasn't without obstacles. At one point about a month in, Alicia was required to resuscitate Ryan after she lost consciousness and her heart stopped briefly while she was feeding her. Still, God was in it. Olivia was initially diagnosed with a heart murmur due to an open heart valve that was going to require the same pediatric surgery that Alicia had to have when she was a baby. In time though, Olivia's heart healed and the valve closed on its own. Both girls also suffered from vision challenges due to Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP) that can lead to blindness. Their eyes weren't responding as well as they were supposed to, and they would subsequently have to undergo corrective surgery to save their vision. But, just like the heart valve, both their eyes began to heal themselves and surgery was ruled out within a number of weeks.
After 61 days, Olivia was released and sent home at just over 4 lbs. Ryan would be sent home a few days later once she reached the 4 lb mark and her heart stabilized. They were both kept on portable heart monitors for months because their hearts would occasionally stop at night while they slept. The machines would detect whenever their heart rates would began to fall which caused the medical equipment to belt out a heart shattering medical alarm to wake us up in the night to save their lives.
In total, the kids ran up a bill of almost $10,000 a day (per child) in the NICU. The final bill for their care exceeded well over $1 Million, most of which was covered by medical insurance. Needless to say, they were both worth every penny.
We've learned a great deal while walking through this together. We learned a lot about each other, about how to navigate crisis, fear, doubt, anxiety and adversity. More importantly though, we learned a lot about the nature of God. He is faithful, merciful, and He is every bit a healer. We learned that we can count on Him, even when we can't count on ourselves. We learned what it means to trust Him. We learned that good things truly do come to those who wait, and that He is definitely in the waiting.
We also learned that God has a sense of humor. You see, not long after the twins were born, we assumed that it would take another couple of years to have another baby; we were praying for a boy next. So, after the girl's first birthday, we discovered that Alicia was pregnant again, this time without delay. It was a little quicker than we anticipated, but a blessing nonetheless. And wouldn't you know it? God delivered our third child, our son Aiden, on the twin's 2nd birthday. As if confirming that the blessings we have were definitively not by accident, all three kids were born on and share the same birthdate; April 8th, 2009 & 2011, respectively.
We are incredibly blessed that our twins are alive and well today, and that all three of our children are blessed beyond measure. Not only did the girls survive, but they are thriving! They are in advanced placement classes, excelling in not only academics but also music. They are funny, happy, and extremely charismatic. What's more, they both have a personal relationship with Jesus.
Our kids aren't problem free, but they are perfect just the same. They can see, despite facing potential blindness. They can breathe, despite being born with under developed lungs. Their heart's are beating and healthy, despite early concerns of defects. They can walk and run, despite being told they wouldn't. They are incredibly smart and can talk and sing and play musical instruments, despite being told they would be developmentally delayed . They have life, despite being told they would not survive. For us, they are the evidence of a miracle, and the physical manifestations of a God blessing. We are so incredibly fortunate that we get to be their parents and we thank God for His faithfulness.
We know that many people reading this may be diligently trying to conceive or perhaps, you've experienced a loss along this journey to parenthood. Please know that we are praying for you. We are praying for your courage, your strength, your comfort and for God's grace in your lives. We love you and want you to know that you aren't alone in this. We pray that our story is encouraging for you and that it offers hope to those who need it.
We'd also love to hear from you. If you are walking through or have walked through a similar story of infertility, post in the comments below or send us an email. We'd love to partner with you in prayer.
About The Authors:
We are Ryan and Alicia Dunlap, marriage coaches and the the founders of ThisIsKnotLove.com. Like a knot, we believe there are two types of marriages; those which are miserable, tangled messes and those which are intentionally fashioned together to join two separate things together as one. We work to remove the bad knots that cause marriages to unravel, and fashion secure knots that hold marriages together. We're just here to help you get the kinks out! #TIKL #KnottyLove