They say good things come in threes, and Darryl and Shannon Alker were ecstatic when they discovered they were expecting triplets. But the birth of their babies 16 weeks early, making them some of the country’s youngest surviving triplets, has led to great sadness and heartache, with one of their daughters dying and the other two suffering ongoing health issues.
The Christchurch couple were thrilled when they learned they were expecting three babies – a set of identical twins and a single baby – who were conceived naturally. “I was over the moon. I was the proudest man on the planet,” says Darryl (40). Shannon (38) was more hesitant. “I thought, ‘Oh my goodness this is going to be a challenge,’ but I was excited at the same time.”
Shannon’s pregnancy progressed smoothly until she was 24 weeks pregnant – but then her waters broke. They went to hospital but were told they couldn’t have the babies there because there were no beds available for the newborns. “I started bawling my eyes out,” recalls Shannon.
The anxious couple was airlifted to Waikato Hospital where their babies Bella, Lily (the identical twins) and Abby were delivered. They weighed just 649g, 698g, and 716g. “The ramifications of having triplets at 24 weeks didn’t hit me until probably weeks later,” says Shannon. Darryl also didn’t realise the seriousness of the situation. “We knew extreme prematurity could happen but we didn’t realise the consequences.”
Over the following weeks the triplets all needed surgery and while being on a ventilator for five weeks saved their lives, it also caused chronic lung disease. Abby struggled, suffering respiratory collapse. She almost died, but recovered and a month later the triplets were finally flown back to Christchurch. However, the family wasn’t out of the woods yet.
Shortly after the girls’ arrival, Darryl was made redundant and, at the same time, Abby contracted another chest infection. Once again the doctors told the couple they needed to be prepared that they may not be taking Abby home, says Shannon. Knowing this, Darryl then had to go straight to a job interview. “I was the sole provider so I just had to do it. It was pretty tough,” says Darryl, who was offered the role and now works at Mike Greer Homes as a project manager.
A few days later, little Bella was again struck down by her chronic lung disease and was put back on a ventilator. “We quite quickly made the decision to take Bella off life support because we didn’t want her to die with us not being there,” says Shannon. Four-month- old Bella passed away in her parents’ arms on their fourth wedding anniversary.
“It took 34 minutes. It was just awful, absolutely the hardest thing in our life to do. However, it’s the best thing we could’ve done for Bella,” says Shannon. Abby, still fighting, pulled through. She and Lily were finally brought home after 177 days in hospital.
Now 14 months old, they both have ongoing health problems, including chronic lung disease. Abby doesn’t eat, so is fed through a tube directly into her stomach. Meanwhile, Lily was diagnosed as profoundly deaf earlier this year and also has cerebral palsy. Not only will this affect her mobility but Darryl says, “We don’t know whether she’s going to be able to do sign language.”
Lily’s ability to communicate hangs on a bilateral cochlear implant which will allow her to hear in both ears. But her parents must find the money to pay for the surgery. The government will pay for one implant but the second could cost up to $40,000 if Lily receives it at the same time as the first one. So far they’ve raised $30,000, including a $3000 donation from Darryl’s new boss and $20,000 collected from a quiz night organised by the North Canterbury community of Pegasus.
Shannon and Darryl need to raise another $5000 to $7000 to cover surgery costs. Shannon says Lily has never been on death’s door like Abby or Bella and they were shocked to receive the news about her profound hearing loss. “You just think, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve lived through this huge event and now we’ve got something else.’”
Darryl and Shannon say although there’s been heartache since their daughters were born last year, there’s also been joy. “You could still appreciate special moments in hospital,” says Shannon. “We’ve learned a lot about resilience in the last year and it just amazes me how much you can cope with.”
By Alex Mason
If you would like to make a donation towards Lily's cochlear implant, the Alkers' bank account number is: 02-0852-0036855-97