Betsy Koop would do anything to give her triplets the best start in life.
Even when that meant doing nothing at all.
And that’s pretty much what she did for three months, living in a hospital room on bed rest.
It could have been boring. Lonely. Heartbreaking, even. It meant time apart from her 4-year-old son—too many days when she couldn’t kiss him good morning, ruffle his blond curls or tuck him in at night.
But reclining in her bed at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital, miles from her family, Betsy looked as serene as a guest at a five-star spa. She chatted happily about friendships forged with other patients. About milkshake celebrations and the world’s slowest wheelchair races.
She bubbled with enthusiasm over the three babies growing in her beach ball-sized belly.
Positive doesn’t begin to sum up the sunny attitude that radiated from her hospital room.
Where did it come from—all that sunshine?
From joy and sorrow. From love and loss.
As a mom, Betsy knows that terrain well.
“We had a baby who lived only one day two and a half years ago,” she said quietly. “I would have lived here for a decade if I could have avoided what we went through.
“What’s three months if it can potentially ensure that these babies are given every opportunity to be healthy and safe?”
First comes love
Betsy, a teacher, and her husband, Jonathan, a businessman, live in Zeeland, Michigan, with their 4-year-old son, Brecken.
“I had an awesome pregnancy with him,” Betsy said. “He has been the easiest kid. He is a sweetheart.”
Soon after Brecken was born, the couple began trying for another child. They suffered a miscarriage.
We can tip toward light or we can tip toward darkness. When possible, we tipped toward life.
Betsy became pregnant again, and all seemed to go smoothly. But one night in December 2015, 30 weeks into her pregnancy, she began to feel uneasy.
“I was lying in bed and I said, ‘Something feels weird,’” she recalled. She got up to call the doctor, thinking she was worried about nothing. “And then, boom. My water broke.”
Two minutes later, their son, Iver, was born. Jonathan breathed for the tiny infant as they waited for the paramedics to arrive.
They took him to Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, but Iver lived only 12 hours.
“As he was passing away, my husband and I were holding him and we sang ‘Amazing Grace’ to him. And we said, ‘Buddy, we promise that we are going to make your life count. We are going to choose joy and we are going to choose to brighten the world on your behalf.’”
Choosing joy didn’t mean escaping grief.
“We really spent time in that dark place,” she said. “We focused on our grief journey, and it was awful. But we can tip toward light or we can tip toward darkness. When possible, we tipped toward life.”
After Iver came three more pregnancies. Each ended in miscarriage. Their fertility specialists told the Koops the reasons behind each loss were unrelated.
“They kept saying, ‘I know this is hard for you to believe, but you are just as likely as any healthy woman to have a healthy pregnancy,’” Betsy said.
The Koops explored adoption. In fact, they had been approved and were awaiting a family when they decided to try one more round with a fertility drug.
In late August 2017, they learned the joyful news: They were expecting a child.
Her positive attitude is contagious.
At the first ultrasound, Betsy and Jonathan watched in fascination and shock as the technician detected a heartbeat. Two heartbeats. Three heartbeats.
By that point, they were laughing so hard they couldn’t see the ultrasound monitor.
“She was like, ‘Let me look for four.’ And we said, ‘No. Stop, please!’” Betsy said.
By November, her belly growing steadily with her triplet pregnancy, Betsy began modified bed rest at home.
In January, she went to the hospital with flu-like symptoms, thinking she needed intravenous fluids to make sure she didn’t become dehydrated.
At that point, nearly 24 weeks into the pregnancy, her doctors noticed two of the babies’ amniotic sacs had high fluid levels.
The condition, polyhydramnios, could raise the risk of a preterm delivery, said her maternal fetal medicine specialists, Vivian Romero, MD, and Lisa Thiel, DO. The excess fluid stretches the amniotic sac. In some cases, this can cause the water to break early and the placenta to detach from the wall of the uterus.
It’s possible that condition played a role in Iver’s early arrival, the doctors said.
“Not knowing what happened with that pregnancy, it was very hard to counsel her about her recurrent risk,” Dr. Romero said.
But given her history, as well as the risk of preterm delivery with triplets in general, her doctors wanted Betsy to stay in the hospital a while for monitoring.
One week turned into two weeks. And eventually, Betsy and her medical team decided she should stay for the duration of her pregnancy.
Staying weeks, even months, is not uncommon for women with high-risk pregnancies, the doctors said. But Betsy’s response to it certainly was.
She immediately set out to make friends, becoming an unofficial social director on the fourth floor. She asked the nurses to let other women on bed rest know she would love to meet them.
“She made it all about making the most of her situation,” Dr. Thiel said.
“Her positive attitude is contagious,” Dr. Romero said. “She has helped other patients see the bright side of being in the hospital.”
Betsy freely shared her history with other moms she met, including the loss of her son, Iver, and her miscarriages, as well as stories about her son, Brecken.
Her losses gave her a “perspective of gratitude,” she said.
“It’s been nice to have the freedom to rest in here,” she said. “I am able to care for these little ones and feel like I’m doing everything I can for them.”
She and the other moms, although strangers at first meeting, bonded over their shared predicament.
“You’re all fighting for your babies in a position that kind of stinks,” she said. “You miss your families. It’s easy to get down.”
And Betsy acknowledged that she wrestled with sadness and anxiety. But her antidote was friendship.
“I have met some really interesting people and become really good friends, which is beautiful,” she said.
Together, she and other moms looked for reasons to celebrate. When one mom reached a new week in her pregnancy, they asked staff or family members to wheel them to the nearby food court for a milkshake. The calories were more than welcome. Pregnant with triplets, Betsy needed to consume 4,500 calories a day.
On warm days, they went outside for fresh air and sunshine. Sometimes, they just popped into each other’s rooms for visits.
“Social connection is just really powerful when you’re in such an isolated situation,” she said.
On a sunny afternoon, Kerrie Karasiewicz, of Ludington, stopped by Betsy’s room. She had been in the hospital for 11 weeks, awaiting the birth of her son, and the two women formed a friendship that lifted both their spirits.
Often, they talked about their kids—Kerrie has two daughters―and their lives at home.
“If we have a bad day, we can vent to each other,” Kerrie said.
Missing her son, Brecken, was the most challenging part of her time in the hospital.
When Jonathan brought Brecken in for visits, Betsy looked for ways to make the hospital a fun place for him. They played with Legos, made slime, filled cups with ice at the ice machine, colored pictures and played many rounds of Uno.
A couple of weeks before the triplets arrived, Brecken climbed up on the bed beside his mom and hugged her belly. She pointed out where each baby lay nestled inside.
She reminded him why they wanted the babies to stay inside as long as possible.
“The longer they are in me, the sooner they will come home (after birth),” she said.
Betsy credited her husband, Jonathan, for making it possible for Brecken to thrive during her time in the hospital.
“It’s been a journey, but Brecken has adapted so well,” she added. “It’s amazing. I’m so thankful.”
Early one April morning, Betsy came out of her hospital room in her wheelchair, beaming and waving to nurses and nurse technicians as she was wheeled down the hall.
“It’s go time,” she said. “I’m so excited.”
At 35 weeks and two days into her pregnancy, she was ready to have her babies.
In the pre-op room before her cesarean section, she placed little hats bearing the babies’ names on her belly and posed for pictures.
In the operating room, 20 doctors, nurses and staff members greeted Betsy and Jonathan.
Dr. Romero performed the C-section and delivered the babies. Within three minutes, the operating room burst with sound: the cries of babies and the laughter and coos of the grownups.
“It’s a boy!”
“Oh, my gosh!”
Nurses passed the babies one by one to Betsy’s waiting arms. Soon the newborns were nestled in nearby isolettes, and a pair of nurses attended to each child.
Willem Richard weighed 6 pounds, 3 ounces. Olive Joy was 4 pounds, 15 ounces. Townsend Iver weighed 5 pounds, 15 ounces.
Altogether, Betsy had carried 17 pounds of babies, plus several pounds of placenta and amniotic fluid.
“You were amazing,” Dr. Romero said. “It was a perfect delivery.”
Joy comes in threes
The babies snoozed contentedly in their cribs in the neonatal intensive care unit at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, when Betsy, Jonathan and Brecken arrived for a visit on the babies’ 1-week birthday.
Betsy sat in big armchair and posed for a photo with Willem, Olive and Townsend tucked in her arms. Three pink faces, wispy hair and closed eyes—they looked similar but not identical. Their parents have no problem telling them apart.
Big brother Brecken stroked Willem’s head and gave him a kiss.
“My heart is truly exploding,” Betsy said. “I don’t have words to express the joy I feel.”
Her three months of hospital bed rest turned out to be a gift.
“It was so worth every second,” she said. “I would do it all over again—and for twice as long—if I had to.”