Robin Huebner reports: A special kind of family bond
WEST FARGO - A young couple here went from feeling the joy of expecting triplets to the sorrow of losing two of the babies and the fear of wondering whether the third would survive.
Mike and Brittany Sylstad, both 26, have been riding the proverbial roller coaster of emotions since learning she was pregnant.
Those emotions are starting to settle, now that their son, Brenner, the lone surviving triplet, has gone over the 5-pound mark.
But reality is settling in, as well.
Brenner has been at Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis since the three babies made a very premature entrance in early April.
Brittany was granted leave from her job as head toddler teacher at MSUM Early Education Center so she can be with Brenner.
Mike travels back and forth every week, as he works four days on, four days off as a paramedic for F-M Ambulance and volunteer firefighter for West Fargo.
He says the bill for the neonatal intensive care unit alone is already more than $200,000, and Brenner’s anticipated
late-July release has been pushed back at least a month.
The situation has the couple feeling a little overwhelmed, and the community galvanized to help, with numerous fundraisers and a big benefit set for Friday.
“He works for the fire department – they risk their lives every day. He’s also a paramedic – he’s saving lives every day,” said family friend and benefit organizer Amanda Hartmann, “and she’s a preschool teacher.”
In other words, who wouldn’t want to help two people who are always helping others?
Mike and Brittany tried to start a family not long after they married in 2011 but struggled with infertility.
When treatments were successful and she became pregnant last November, they were ecstatic.
A month later, after she experienced bleeding, they went to the emergency room, thinking she was having a miscarriage.
Instead, an ultrasound showed that wasn’t the case – that in fact, there was good news.
“Triplets, what the heck?” said Mike, when he learned how many babies his wife was carrying.
A few complications came in the months to follow, but nothing uncommon for moms-to-be of multiples.
“I was feeling perfectly fine throughout the pregnancy,” Brittany said.
On April 1, symptoms surfaced that pointed to pre-term labor, and she was taken by air ambulance to a Twin Cities hospital.
“You don’t always realize how bad situations are until you’re in it,” said Brittany.
She and her doctors were able to stave off labor for a few more days.
On April 8, the triplets were born by cesarean section at 24 weeks gestation – 111 days before their July 28 due date.
The babies were frighteningly small, each weighing from just over a pound to a pound and a half.
The first – a baby girl they named Olivia – was stillborn.
The second – another girl they named Ainsley – required a blood transfusion and extensive breathing support.
The third – Brenner – was the strongest and needed the least amount of medical intervention.
Three days later, about the time the couple was starting to accept the loss of Olivia, Ainsley began to deteriorate, and a steady stream of doctors and nurses poured into the room.
The couple watched as the medical team tried in vain for 45 minutes to resuscitate her.
“It was the most terrifying thing,” said Mike.
As a paramedic, he said it was much different to be on the other side, “watching the monitors, knowing there was nothing I could do.”
As much as they wanted to take time to grieve, the couple turned their focus and energies to Brenner.
They had to wait 11 days after his birth to hold him.
“I only held children when one had already passed away and when the other one was dying,” said Brittany.
“I wanted to hold a baby I knew was OK,” she said.
Since then, Brenner has come a long way.
While he’s still on oxygen and dealing with eye problems typical for preemies, he’s grown to 5 pounds, 5 ounces.
As Brenner grew stronger, Mike and Brittany were allowed their brief time to grieve for Olivia and Ainsley.
They were finally able to have a funeral for their daughters May 31.
While Mike has lost two of his own babies, he helped bring a healthy baby into the world not long ago.
He and other paramedics and EMTs were honored in 2012 for helping deliver a baby in an ambulance along Interstate 94 between Barnesville, Minn., and Fargo.
It’s those life-and-death situations they deal with every day, Mike said, that make public safety workers such a tight-knit bunch.
“Because we go through so many intense scenes and emotions, it builds a trust together, builds a family,” said Mike.
“They’ve been by my side the entire time,” Mike said, speaking of his co-workers.
And they aren’t hesitating to help him.
“He’s a giver,” said Don Martin, operations manager at F-M Ambulance, when describing Mike.
“He never takes, never asks for help,” Martin said, adding, “Just a humble, young heart.”
What started as a baby shower and diaper drive put on by Mike’s EMS and fire families turned into multiple fundraisers to help cover the couple’s medical costs.
“We knew we needed to plan for something big because they were going to need a lot of help,” said Hartmann.
Numerous businesses, including Granite City, Quaker Steak & Lube and Smiling Moose Deli on 45th Street in Fargo have donated to the cause.
Already, about $15,000 has been raised, and friends hope to bring that total to $30,000 to $40,000 with Friday’s benefit at the Red River Valley Fairgrounds.
Mike’s and Brittany’s co-workers have hit the streets, asking people to donate services, silent auction items and baked goods for the benefit, which also will feature a baked potato bar and music from a DJ.
People from Mike’s hometown of McIntosh, Minn., and Brittany’s hometown of Deerwood, Minn., also are lending support.
Dakota Medical Foundation’s fundraising program “Lend A Hand” is providing $5,000 in matching funds.
While the aim of the benefit is to raise money, it’s also to celebrate the family and honor the memory of Olivia and Ainsley.
“There’s no way to describe how grateful we are,” said Brittany.
If you go
- What: Sylstad Family Benefit, including silent auction, baked-potato bar, BYOB, 21+ event.
- When: Friday, July 18, 6 p.m. to 1 a.m.
- Where: Hartl Ag Building, Red River Valley Fairgrounds, West Fargo.
- Info: https://www.facebook.com/sylstadfamilybenefit/info