By Mercy's Madelynn Innes
In just the last year, Derek Benz started Mercy’s paramedics training program, attending eight-hour classes twice a week, all the while working full time as a new member of Mercy Hospital Springfield’s Emergency Medical Services. As if that wasn’t enough to keep Derek hopping, he also became a father – with twins!
Daughters Mira and Marley were born on October 12. Weighing in just shy of 2 pounds each, they arrived 11 weeks prior to their C-section delivery, scheduled for late December. Their mother, Shelby, had been working in Mercy’s burn unit since the previous January.
“I wasn’t expecting to start maternity leave for several more weeks," she said. But at 25 weeks, the twins decided to catch everyone by surprise, especially since Shelby was away in Boston. “I was visiting my brother, who’d just moved there.”
Meanwhile, Derek stayed home to work and continue going to class. Plus, he added, “I knew I’d need my vacation time to use after the girls were born.”
On Shelby’s last day in Boston, she noticed the babies were kicking a lot, and she had some cramping. Later that evening, the pain increased, and then she noticed blood. It wasn’t until that point she realized that something was wrong.
Agonizingly aware of her babies’ risk at this premature stage, she said, “I knew I needed to find a hospital right away. The hardest part was telling Derek what was going on because I knew how much he wanted to be there.”
Shelby’s brother took her to Massachusetts General Hospital, thanks to his fast research. “There are like six nearby hospitals, but he found out that it’s one of the best,” she said.
Meanwhile, Derek was frantic, trying to get out of Springfield. “There weren’t any overnight flights out of town, so Shelby’s parents and I got the earliest one at 6 a.m. We were in the security line at the Springfield airport when I got the text that they’d arrived and were ok.”
The girls were indeed in excellent hands. “Each one had team of doctors and nurses,” Shelby recalled.
Mass General, the oldest and largest hospital in New England, is ranked the #1 hospital in the country by U.S. News & World Report. For the next six weeks, the hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) would serve as the twins’ home away from home. As for Derek, Shelby and her parents, they’d found an apartment near the hospital.
“During the nights that weren’t too chaotic, we went there to nap, but we more or less lived every day at the NICU,” Derek said.
“It was an emotional roller coaster,” added Shelby. “There were a lot of scary times, but a lot of little victories too.” As they continued to face every day’s challenges and small miracles, there was another miracle of sorts coming their way from Missouri.
“My co-workers at Mercy rallied, sending us a donation, and that was a game-changer that allowed me to stay the full six weeks,” Derek said. “It was amazing having that kind of support from our EMS family, even from people I’d only met once who work in other counties.”
Most every day, Derek’s EMS leaders and team members stayed in contact, encouraging him not to worry and trying to find ways to help with his expenses so he and Shelby could both stay as long as their daughters needed to.
“They were all trying to help,” Derek said. “Mainly, the biggest hurdle was figuring out the insurance for the air medical transport to get them home. Bob Patterson, Mercy’s EMS executive director, even flew out to see us and try to help figure out how to get us home.”
On the day the twins’ medical team agreed they were strong enough to travel, they were released and flown to Springfield. Derek was disappointed his co-workers from Springfield weren’t able to make the transport, but thankful that a team from Mercy Children's Hospital St. Louis could.
Traveling separately, Marley left with Shelby first, then Mira and Derek followed. On each flight was a team of two respiratory therapists and two registered nurses, keeping a watchful eye over their precious cargo. Arriving in Springfield just days before Thanksgiving, the family was immediately taken to Mercy and admitted into the NICU – their new home away from home for the next seven weeks. Compared to the acclaimed Mass General, Derek and Shelby agreed, “They’re both excellent NICUs.”
Among the most significant difference, Derek added, “Here, we had a private room that was sound-proof from all the other noises, and it could be completely dark when we wanted. “As a new parent, you’re constantly Googling everything about preemies; for instance, I learned they do best in low-light conditions. At Mass General, we were in one room with another large family. The lighting was very bright, and it was loud compared to Mercy’s extremely quiet NICU.”
At seven weeks in Mercy’s NICU, the girls had each gained about 4 pounds over their birth weight. Thanksgiving and Christmas had come and gone. But yet, Shelby and Derek still agree it was one of the best so far, thanks to the amazing support and care of their families, friends and especially their NICU nurses and doctors.
“I can understand why they have a NICU reunion every year,” Shelby said. “We’ll definitely be there!”
Finally, on January 13, Marley’s doctors in the NICU agreed she was ready to go home. Mira followed about a week later. “They’re strong little girls,” said Shelby. “We’re so thankful and extremely fortunate that their medical condition is so good.”
To make sure they continue to make expected progress, each one is under the care of their Mercy pediatrician, Dr. Kimberly Stoll, as well as a team of specialists, including pulmonologist Dr. Matthew Lundien, pediatric cardiologist Dr. John Plowden and ophthalmologist Dr. Mark Cascairo.
It’s been a surreal journey with many lessons along the way, they both agreed. Now, they’d like to share what they’ve discovered, particularly with families in the NICU.
“I’d tell them you’re going to have bad days. But you’ll have small wins, too,” Shelby said. “It’s really important to take the small wins and hold onto them. Also, Mercy’s NICU staff did a really good job of helping us day by day with so many resources."