Tiny steps

Becky Vargo • Jul 21, 2015 at 1:28 PM

It’s quiet in the neo-natal intensive care unit at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital as Michael and Toria Plant gaze at their 2-week-old daughter, Amy.

Amy stretches her tiny fingers and moves her arm, briefly touching the black mask that protects her eyes from the light basking her jaundiced body.

Michael walks a short distance across the room and lifts a blanket covering a separate incubator. Inside it is Amy’s identical twin sister, Zoey — the older sister by almost a minute — who sleeps quietly. At one point, Zoey briefly opens her eyes.

“Did you get that?” Michael asks a visitor holding a camera.

Both girls just started opening their eyes a couple of days earlier. It is one of the milestones the Grand Haven couple has experienced since their daughters were born Oct. 22, nearly 16 weeks early.

When the girls were born at 24 weeks, Dr. Danny Knee said they had about a 50 percent chance of survival.

Zoey weighed 1 pound, 4.5 ounces and was just 11 inches long at birth. Amy weighed 1.39 pounds and was 11.7 inches long. Both dropped to about 1 pound before gaining about 10 ounces each at 2 weeks.

Now that they’ve made it through a couple of weeks, their chances of survival have increased, Knee said.

“They’re still at high risk for complications,” the neonatologist added.

Those complications include cerebral palsy, hearing loss, vision issues, chronic lung disease and lower IQ.

“Every once in a while, you have babies that march right through and go home,” Knee said. “We’d love that for every baby.

"Unfortunately, no one knows what’s going to happen for sure," he continued. "You know that something’s going to happen — whether it’s another surgery, an infection or feeding issues. It’s unusual for a child born this early not to have complications before they go home."

Waiting for 'firsts'

The Plants say they are realistic about what is ahead of them, but are optimistic about the outcome.

“Most parents look forward to 'firsts' such as: first solid meal, first time sitting up or rolling over, first steps, first words,” Michael noted on his Facebook page. “We look forward to a different set of firsts: first time out of the incubator, first day their eyes will open, first time we will get to hold them — and a big one: first time breathing on their own.”

The family had a scare early on when Amy’s breathing tube moved and she couldn’t get air. Medical personnel removed the tube and placed her on a continuous positive airway pressure machine when she started breathing on her own, Michael said. After an hour, they determined Amy was not getting enough oxygen, so they reinserted the breathing tube.

Knee said they are hopeful that both girls will be breathing on their own in the next two or three weeks.

Both girls had a blood vessel outside their heart that did not close after birth, their father said. Medication helped Zoey, but Amy had to have surgery last week to close her vessel.

“Amy’s surgery went great,” Michael said.

About the parents

Toria (Jenkins) Plant, 27, originally from Sheridan, had surgery to repair a hole in her heart when she was 8.

“Growing up her whole life, she thought (having children) would be a risk,” Michael said.

The couple met four and a half years ago when they worked at the same store in Muskegon. They’ve been married for two and a half years.

“We did plan on having kids and talked about it,” Toria said. “After I got pregnant, I went and got checked to make sure my heart was OK.”

In June, they found out they were having twins.

“We went to the Lakeshore Pregnancy Center in Grand Haven because they have free ultrasounds,” Michael said. “When we went in there, we thought she was eight weeks along.”

But the ultrasound showed that the pregnancy was only six weeks along.

“We were both giddy and happy and excited and giggling,” Michael said.

A lifelong resident of Grand Haven, Michael, 30, said they then started traveling to Grand Rapids for more specialized care.

Early birth

Toria took a leave of absence from her job as a housekeeper during the course of her pregnancy, primarily because of problems with morning sickness. Other than that, the pregnancy was going well until Toria started having contractions on Oct. 19.

“It wasn’t painful," she said. "It was just kind of uncomfortable most of the day. I thought they were (what people consider false contractions).”

At the urging of a friend later that day, the Plants went to a local hospital's emergency room. Toria wasn’t dilated yet, but there were some concerns, so they had her stay overnight.

By 11 p.m., she was starting to dilate, so they put her in an ambulance and sent her to Spectrum Health Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michael said.

“All through the night, they did a bunch of stuff to stabilize her and to try to stop her from giving birth,” he said.

It worked, and Toria was transferred from the delivery area to the hospital's long-term stay area.

“Tuesday morning, she wakes up and there’s blood in the bed," Michael said. "We never had issues with blood before.”

Toria was taken back to the delivery area so medical personnel could monitor hers and the babies’ hearts. She soon dilated, and quickly.

Michael said 17 minutes after that, he was scrubbed and in the delivery area when his first daughter was delivered by C-section. Amy followed Zoey less than a minute later.

The father said there were probably 20 nurses and doctors in the delivery room.

“I had a team for each baby — about five for each one,” Toria said.

There was also a team working on Toria.

“When Zoey came out first, I could see she was moving a little bit, but I could see she was purple,” Michael said. “Amy was more purple. I didn’t see her moving. ... They put breathing tubes down immediately. That was probably the most traumatic part.

“Then I saw the heart rate monitor and I was able to see Amy was alive,” he added.

Still in his scrubs, Michael followed the babies and doctors to the neo-natal unit, where he watched the infants being hooked up to tubes and monitors.

“At one point, she had nine things going into her,” he said.

Two weeks later, that number is down to two — for breathing and feeding.

Both girls are getting small amounts of their mother’s milk through a tube that goes into their stomachs.

“I never did get to hear them cry,” Michael said as he looked at his daughters. “I still haven’t to this day. I haven’t got to hold them yet.”

“I’m in the same boat,” Toria said.

Instead, while her husband works from home, Toria spends long days at the hospital with the girls.

“I spend as much time here as I can,” she said. “My father-in-law will bring me here at 9:30 or 10 a.m. He picks me up between 8:30 and 9:30 p.m.”

Toria said she spends her time talking to the girls, reading stories and singing, especially "You are My Sunshine."

“It’s one of my favorite songs my dad used to sing to me," she said. "I wanted to pass it along to them.”

Help welcomed

The Plants are on a waiting list to get into either the Ronald McDonald House or Renucci House, so they can spend more time with the daughters without having to drive back and forth from Grand Haven. Neither one of them has health insurance, so Medicaid covers the girls.

“But it doesn’t pay for transportation, hotel rooms or food,” Michael said.

Although the family normally takes a private approach to their finances, Michael said they have to set that aside and are thankful for any help they receive.

“If we’re able to be here next to them, touching them, they get better,” he said. “You can see almost an instant change for their vitals."

Donations to help the family may be made at any Fifth Third Bank for the benefit of Zoey S. and Amy J. Plant. Donations may also be sent to P.O. Box 34, Ferrysburg, MI 49409.

The parents and children have a long road ahead of them, their doctor said.

In their three weeks of life, they have already had a combined five blood transfusions, eight heart echoes, one heart surgery, six brain scans, around 50 blood tests and about 30 X-rays.

“It helps that our girls are very strong-willed and strong in general,” Toria said, “(and) that they have the fight and the desire to live.”

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