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    It was an ambitious goal. The more babies a woman is carrying, the earlier they try to force their way out. On average, triplets emerge at 33 weeks, seven weeks before full term, and quadruplets at 31 weeks. No figures exist for quints and other multiples because so few are born, but the trend isn't encouraging.

    To keep things as stable as possible, Drs. Mahone and Drake ordered Bobbi to bed just three weeks after the septuplets were discovered. On Oct. 15 she was moved into the Iowa Methodist Medical Center, where she could be put on medication to stave off labor and where she and the babies were within easy reach of the labor team that had already been assembled.

    Surprisingly, it wasn't until Bobbi entered the hospital that word of her remarkable pregnancy became public, though it had been an open secret in and around Carlisle for months. That may seem incredible for anyone who hasn't experienced the close-knit solidarity of a small Midwestern town. But while Bobbi's condition was discussed freely in Carlisle, the McCaugheys' neighbors quietly agreed that word shouldn't leak to outsiders. Says Kay Scholl, who runs Carlisle Foods with her husband: "Nobody asked us personally to keep it a secret, but it was known that this was the family's wishes. I'm extremely proud that we honored that." Even reporters at KCCI, the CBS affiliate in Des Moines, who got wind of the story early on, agreed to keep it under wraps. "Even if the ethics debate was raging in our minds," explains KCCI reporter Steve Karlin, "we have to live here."

    Aside from the antilabor drugs, Bobbi had no special medical intervention; her treatment consisted mostly of downing vitamins, minerals and high-protein nutritional supplements. And while the risk of miscarriage, high blood pressure or other complications was always present, she stayed healthy right up to and through the magic 28-week barrier. Finally, last Tuesday, in the middle of her 30th week, the contractions that had been kept under control by medicine increased to 10 an hour.

    More drugs might have helped Bobbi delay the inevitable, but, says Drake, "she'd had it." It was time to execute the plan that had been worked out over the previous two months. The delivery took place in a two-room surgical suite that normally serves cardiac patients. At 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Bobbi was partly anesthetized; 18 minutes later, the boy nicknamed Hercules (he'd been supporting the weight of all his siblings in the womb) was lifted out. "There was a lot of pressure," says anesthesiologist Dr. Dirk Brom, "but it all went like clockwork." Bobbi was quiet, Brom recalls, but "there were tears in her eyes as her babies were being born." Before she left the operating room, Bobbi was reportedly given a tubal ligation.

    As they were delivered, each infant—Kenneth Robert (a.k.a. Hercules), then Alexis May, Natalie Sue, Kelsey Ann, Brandon James, Nathan Roy and, finally, Joel Steven—was taken to an adjacent room, placed on a warmer bed and given a ventilator tube and an intravenous line; then each was moved to the intensive care unit at the Blank Hospital. All the babies were initially listed in serious condition, which is actually better than expected, considering they were 10 weeks premature. Joel was briefly downgraded to critical on Wednesday because of blood loss. But by evening he had rebounded, and he has as good a chance of thriving as his siblings.

    Despite their lack of growing space and premature delivery, the septuplets were surprisingly big, ranging from a respectable 2 lbs. 5 oz. for Kelsey to a (relatively) strapping 3 lbs. 4 oz. for Kenneth. Still, like most preemies, all the babies had trouble breathing at first. Dr. Robert Shaw, the neonatologist in charge of the babies' care, originally predicted that this condition would last four or five days. But by Friday, Kenneth had begun breathing on his own and had his status upgraded to fair. The rest remained in serious condition, but that's par for the course. "We're trying to let them rest, limit their exposure to infections and let them grow stronger," says Shaw. "We're working at maintaining their temperatures, which is not easy to do in an Iowa winter."

    If all goes well, the kids will be out of the hospital by late January—which is when they would have been born if they had gone full term. Their mother, who has been visiting her babies by wheelchair, may leave the hospital early this week. In a television interview Friday, Bobbi said she'll be home for Thanksgiving "if I have to walk home."

    Over the next few weeks, the medical team will try to wean the babies off their breathing tubes and IV infusions, and then start them on breast milk and formula to get their tiny digestive systems working. All the while, the doctors and nurses will be watching carefully; they're well aware that in the only other live septuplet birth, to a Saudi woman in September, three of the babies died a month later. They'll be giving the parents as many chances as possible to touch, hold and care for their children. On Friday, Bobbi and Kenny held Kenneth for the first time. "It was incredible," said Bobbi. "I can't wait to hold all of them."

    Even after the septuplets go home, they won't be out of danger. As preemies, and especially as multiple preemies, they'll continue to run a higher risk of developmental problems. Shaw explains that the parents will be encouraged to put the babies through screenings at four months, nine months, 18 months and 30 months to assess their motor and cognitive development. Ideally, every stage—from when they sit up to when they crawl, walk and talk—should be scrutinized by experts. It may be years before their full physical and mental potential is known for sure.

    As the McCaugheys negotiate the trials of parenthood, now increased sevenfold, they're determined not to let public attention get any further out of hand. They have been approached about doing a book or a movie based on their story, but they're moving carefully. "The big fear," said Kenny, "is that this could turn into a big show. This is my family...and we're not on for display."

    Fertility experts are worried that all the attention being paid to the birth of seven healthy septuplets against monumental odds will convince others that such births are safer and less tragic than they so often turn out to be. Nevertheless, while she never set out to have septuplets, Bobbi has no doubt that she did the right thing.

    "They're my children," she said on Friday, "and I wanted them."

    Reported by Wendy Cole/Des Moines, Kevin Fedarko/Carlisle and James L. Graff/Chicago

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