January 11, 1999 12:00 PM

At first, Dr. Brian Kirshon, a specialist in high-risk multiple births, couldn’t tell how many babies Nkem Chukwu was carrying. When the Nigerian-born mother-to-be, then 12 weeks pregnant, first walked into his office last September, ultrasound revealed only a jumble of fetuses. “I didn’t realize that I would be part of a history-making event,” says Kirshon.

Yet that is what he became on Dec. 20, when Chukwu, 29, who had been treated for infertility before miscarrying triplets last February, finished delivering the first living set of octuplets in the U.S. Seven babies, delivered by cesarean section at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Houston, weighed between 10.3 ozs. and 1 lb. 10 ozs. A first child, Ebuka, had been born spontaneously 12 days earlier, at 25 weeks—after which Kirshon had administered drugs to stop Nkem’s contractions and give the other babies more time in the womb. After the record birth, father Iyke Paul Louis Jr., 42, a Nigerian-born respiratory therapist, told reporters, “My wife and I are elated.”

But the elation didn’t last long. Just a week after her birth the smallest of the eight, daughter Chijindu Chidera (meaning “God has my life”), died of heart and lung failure, and, inevitably, questions were raised anew about the hazards of multiple births. Houston obstetrician Robert Carpenter, who specializes in high-risk pregnancies, even called the delivery “a medical catastrophe.” Says Leonard Weisman, chief of Neonatology for Texas Children’s Hospital, where the surviving children—including three still on ventilators—continue to be closely monitored: “Having a sick baby is a stressful roller-coaster ride, and this family had eight of them.”

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