This Sunday, when the Falcons play the Ravens, you’ll see Matt Ryan wearing a new pair of blue cleats. The March of Dimes, a non-profit that works to support the health of mothers and babies, will be printed on his right shoe; Northside Hospital Miracle Babies, a program to support families of preemies born at the Atlanta hospital, will be printed on the left. Ryan’s cleats will be auctioned off to raise money for both organizations through the NFL’s My Cause, My Cleats platform, but the Falcons quarterback and dad to nine-month-old twin boys also has a very personal reason behind his choice.
It was a Tuesday morning last January, and we were getting ready to the play the Eagles in last year’s divisional round of the playoffs. I was at work, in a normal quarterbacks’ meeting that we have. I had my phone with me, only because I knew my wife, Sarah, had a doctor’s appointment that day.
We’d found out she was pregnant during training camp, and we were both so excited. It was something that we had been trying for, for a long time. And then when we found out she was having twins, that was a special day, too. We were happy and excited and nervous—all of the things that go along with that.
Twin pregnancies are always high-risk, so Sarah was going in for regular doctor’s appointments bi-weekly, if not more, throughout her entire pregnancy. She went in on this Tuesday morning for what was supposed to be a routine check-up. And then she called me and said she was getting admitted to the hospital.
Sarah had a complication with her pregnancy at 24 weeks and five days.
It was around 8:15 a.m. when I got the call, and I left the Falcons facility and stayed at the hospital with her the rest of the day through the next morning. We were just trying to get as much information as we could. It was still so early in her pregnancy. When they talk to you about the percentages of survival with children being born at that gestational age, that’s a scary and terrifying time.
That week before the Eagles game was touch and go. We were unsure as to what was going on, what was going to happen. The game was a huge opportunity for us as a team, and I was excited about that, but obviously I was most concerned with the well-being of my family. You don’t want to leave; you want to be able to be there and support her in any way that you can. We had reassurance from the doctors that things were stable before I left for Philadelphia, and we were lucky that Sarah was able to have family come down to be with her while I was gone.
After we lost to the Eagles, the next five weeks were basically spent at Northside Hospital, in Room D8. Sarah’s mom, Susie, came and stayed with us, and we alternated staying overnight with Sarah. We watched TV, read books, played cards. She and her mom were really into Gin Rummy, and we oddly played a lot of Uno, which was just kind of a brainless way to pass the time. It’s not easy having to be on bed rest, not able to leave a room for six weeks, but not once was Sarah restless or angry or anything like that. She’s incredibly selfless.
The one thing we both learned through this process is that each day that the babies were able to stay inside was huge. So each day that passed, each week that passed, the amount of development for our boys was monumental. We’re so fortunate she was able to keep them in there as long as she did, to give our boys a really good chance. Sarah has an unbelievable strength to her that I knew was there, but when you go through something like that, it opens your eyes to it even more.
Feb. 21 started out like every other day in the hospital. I left to get in a workout, and I got a call in the early afternoon that Sarah was uncomfortable. I went back, and the doctors and nurses got her a little bit more comfortable. We ordered some take-out salads for dinner around 6 p.m. By 7 p.m., she was in labor. I think anybody who has been in the room when children are born knows it’s an unbelievable experience. With our boys being premature, we also had a little bit of a crew in the room. The hospital had a team of five or six nurses and doctors each, waiting to take them up to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
Our boys were born at 30 weeks and six days. Marshall was first, weighing 2 lbs., 15 oz. Seven minutes later, Johnny arrived. He was 2 lbs., 14 oz. They were small, but they were strong. Sarah’s maiden name was Marshall, and John is a family name for both of us. Johnny’s middle name is Matthew, and Marshall’s middle name is Thomas, the same as mine, so it was cool to be able to give each of them each a little bit of my name. Sarah was able to hold both babies, but within about 10 minutes of being born, they were taken upstairs to a different part of the hospital. I went up there, and a different group of doctors were running all kinds of tests.
We were really fortunate to receive the care that we did. While Sarah was in the hospital, she had access to medicines to help prevent premature labor. Our boys were able to get two rounds of steroid injections for their lungs so their breathing was really good when they were born, which was critical in their success. They were able to be taken off breathing assistance within the first week that they were born, which was huge. They were off the high-flow support for their lungs within 10 days or so, though Johnny had to go back on a couple different times. This is one reason why we are supportive of the March of Dimes, because they do so much research into medicines like these that can help moms and babies.
You never really know how things are going to shake out when babies are born prematurely. They give you a window of time that they might need to stay in the NICU if there are no complications, and it’s usually around when they would be born full-term. Part of the reason that Sarah chose Northside Hospital was because of the NICU specifically. It’s widely known as one of the best NICUs in the country. With a high-risk pregnancy with twins, that was something that was really important to us.
It was a stressful time. During the boys’ stay in the NICU, early on there was more restriction on the amount of time they could be outside of the incubator. Once every eight hours for an hour was roughly the amount of time that you could have them out and with you. We got into a pretty good routine of going back three times a day at different shifts so we were able to spend time with them. One of the things they said is best for their development is skin-to-skin contact, so you’d take both of the boys out of the incubator and you would hold them up against your chest. We would read to them a lot, just fill them in about what was going on, talk to them. In the early stages, that was really all we could do.
As they matured in the NICU and they were in open-air cribs, and you could be there whenever you wanted. Sarah was nursing the boys while they were there, and we would bathe them. Our days were spent at their cribside. The boys each had a hotline number, so you could call in overnight and check on how they’re doing. If you woke up during the night. you would call. And you’d call first thing in the morning. You also have that Northside NICU number saved in your cell phone, and they would call you with updates. Any time you would see that number come through, your heart would start racing.
Marshall came home first. He spent five weeks in the hospital and left at 5 lbs, 5 oz. You’re so proud and happy for him to be coming home, but it’s also tough when he’s leaving his brother, and you’re leaving his brother, who still has to be at the hospital. That was a hectic week, trying to take care of Marshall at home and still make sure Sarah was at the hospital as much as she could to help with Johnny. A week later Johnny came home, just a little bit heavier than Marshall. That was a really special day, to have everybody at home together for the first time.
We’re so thankful that our life brought us to Atlanta, and that Sarah’s pregnancy took us to Northside, and for the unbelievable care we got there. Sandy Jun was the main doctor who took care of both of our boys during their extended stay in the NICU, and Gretchen Koontz from Atlanta Maternal-Fetal was Sarah’s doctor during her hospital stay. And then the countless nurses and people who helped us during both the day and night shifts. They are dealing with you in a situation that’s stressful and difficult, and they’re so patient and so good to the children there.
Those were long days, but the time went by quickly. Our boys are nine months old now, and they’re doing awesome. I remember being able to fit them in my hand. They’re getting big now. They’ve been fighters from Day One.
I want other families going through this to know they’re not alone. But we’re also sharing our story to create awareness for finding ways to help babies who are born prematurely and providing our doctors with every opportunity to give these kids the best chance. It’s the first time we’ve supported either of these charities and hospital, but this is just the beginning for us. This is just one small piece of what we plan to do to try and help Northside and the March of Dimes.
I think back to that day in January when Sarah was first admitted to the hospital. That was the scariest time, because we had no idea how things were going to go. All you want to hear is what can be done to help your sons. We want to help other families get the same help we did.
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