3 in a million: Butte woman gives birth to rare identical triplets

2013-10-28T10:58:00Z 2014-06-18T17:09:21Z 3 in a million: Butte woman gives birth to rare identical tripletsBy RENATA BIRKENBUEL Montana Standard The Billings Gazette
October 28, 2013 10:58 am  • 

BUTTE — In a rare case of multiples, a Butte woman has given birth to identical triplets.

Nikki Whitaker delivered three boys over three days in September in Seattle.

Statistically, chances are one in a million that a mother gives birth to genetically identical triplets, said Dr. Glenn McLaughlin, who practices obstetrics in Butte.

“It’s very rare,” said McLaughlin, who lent his statistical expertise when Whitaker’s regular OBGYN declined to comment. “Triplets themselves are probably one in 8,000 or so, but to have identical triplets, the egg would have had to split, then another egg would have had to split again.”

Exact statistics, however, are elusive.

“You won’t find consistent numbers across the board,” McLaughlin said. “It happens so infrequently, it’s difficult to come up with real numbers. The instance of having identical twins is small, then you’d have to square that number.”

Whitaker’s water broke on Sept. 12. She was admitted to Benefis East in Great Falls on Sept. 13.

“I wasn’t due until Jan. 7, so I was 25 weeks along with Robert and 26 weeks along with the other two,” said Whitaker, 29, who was shocked to learn that she would give birth to triplets. She was not taking fertility drugs.

On Sept. 17, Whitaker was airlifted via Mercy Flight from Benefis Hospital in Great Falls to the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. Its Neonatal Intensive Care Unit is considered the No. 1 critical care units in a five-state area.

Whitaker gave natural birth to Robert Keith on Sept. 22, then to the other two three days later — on Sept. 25. Cameron Lucas was delivered naturally and Cooper John was delivered via Caesarean section.

Robert weighed in at 1.4 pounds, Cameron weighed 1.8 pounds and Cooper weighed 1.7 pounds. The babies have struggled since their births.

“They’re all still under 2 pounds,” Whitaker said last week through carefully chosen words fraught with emotion.

Two doctors delivered the three separately over the three-day time frame: OBGYN resident Dr. Joelle Lucas delivered Robert, and then attending physician Dr. Thomas Easterling delivered Cameron and Cooper.

“The fact that she wasn’t on fertility drugs is consistent with her having them be identical,” Easterling said.

Robert is battling pneumonia and had his breathing tube changed early Friday.

Whitaker said Robert had improved since Sunday night, Oct. 20. But challenges remain.

“Both he and Cooper have tested positive for MRSA in their noses, so medical staff works to keep it from entering their bloodstreams,” Whitaker said.

MRSA is methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, a strain of bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics commonly used to treat ordinary staph infections, as defined on the mayoclinic.org website. Most MRSA infections occur in patients in hospitals and are associated with invasive procedures or devices, such as surgeries or intravenous tubing.

“They seem to think that everybody carries the MRSA germ on their body,” Whitaker said. “There is a colonization of bacteria in their noses.”

Cameron recently recovered from a different bacterial infection, and both he and Cooper are in stable condition.

The ever-changing condition of the babies has kept the family on edge for a month.

“Every day is an up-and-down roller coaster,” said Madeline Berkopec, Whitaker’s mother.

The expense of the ordeal adds to their stress.

Whitaker’s daily Medicaid allowance for housing is $25.50, which doesn’t even cover the cost of a mediocre motel room near the densely populated UW campus. Renting an apartment in Seattle is cost-prohibitive and hospital referrals are limited because Whitaker is not a Washington resident.

“It’s so hard,” Whitaker said. “It’s so expensive, it’s ridiculous. I’m holding up, but living in a hospital is really hard.”

She has no income after quitting her house-painting job in August, on doctor’s orders. That’s when she learned she would deliver triplets.

It’s stressful,” said Brandi Lammi, Whitaker’s sister who has visited the babies. “She’s torn between both her sons here and the babies.”

Whitaker has two older boys: Blake, 8, and Mason, 7, who helped name the newborns. Meanwhile, their father and grandmother fill in the mommy gap as they await the day when their new little brothers and mother can return home.

UW Medical is a teaching hospital, so doctors-in-training regularly assist staff.

“It’s nice because the medical students don’t touch my kids,” Whitaker said. “They just observe. That makes me more comfortable.”

While identical twins run on Whitaker’s maternal side, there are no triplets on record, said Berkopec, whose grandmother was an identical twin.

Granted, McLaughlin said the mother’s age, geographic location and number of previous births are key individual factors that must be taken into account on a case-by-case basis.

“Even the instance of twinning, geographically, in the United States accounts for twins 1 in 85 or 90 births,” McLaughlin said. “The more pregnancies a woman has and the older she becomes, the higher chance she has of having multiple births.”

Easterling said the chances of survival for such premature newborns typically range at 50 percent after 24 weeks and increases to 90 percent after 28 weeks.

As Whitaker adjusts to the ongoing changes in the babies’ health and her new lifestyle from a hospital room, she looks forward to bringing the boys home.

“I’m enjoying them,” she said. “I take one day at a time. I have a lot of family in Butte when I get home.”

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