Mary Elizabeth Sease had been a volunteer with the local March of Dimes chapter for several years, one year even serving as chairman of its annual Signature Chefs Auction.
It was a worthy cause, Sease thought. Never in a million years did she imagine that the work of the March of Dimes would one day save her life and the lives of her children.
Sease, who is 41, and her husband, Robert Sease, 49, had not been trying to conceive a baby in October 2012 when they found out she was pregnant, she said.
“In November, we learned instead of one baby, we were having twins,” she said. “My pregnancy was considered high-risk because of my age and because we were expecting twins.”
The due date was May 7, 2013. Everything was going smoothly until the end of January, when Sease was at 26 weeks. “My legs were so swollen and I had gained 10 pounds in a week,” she said. “I went to see my doctor, who immediately checked me into MUSC.”
The doctors said it was preeclampsia, Sease said. That's a condition in which a pregnant woman has high blood pressure and signs that some of her organs, like her kidneys and liver, may not be working properly, according to the March of Dimes.
Preeclampsia affects 2 percent to 8 percent of pregnancies worldwide and is the cause of 15 percent of premature births in the United States,
“If you watched 'Downton Abbey,' Sybil died from eclampsia after she gave birth,” Sease said, referring to the episode that aired in the third season of the popular PBS Masterpiece Theatre series in which Lady Sybil, who had married chauffeur Tom Branson, died shortly after giving birth to a daughter.
Sease was admitted to the hospital immediately and was encouraged to hold off on delivery as long as she could, as it would be better for the babies.
“Miraculously, my body and the babies decided to wait five days,” she said. “At 27 weeks, 13 weeks early, Bennett and Mary Grace were born.”
Bennett weighed 2 pounds, 3 ounces and was only 131/2 inches long, she said. Daughter Mary Grace was even smaller, at 1 pound, 11 ounces and 111/2 inches long.
Both had trouble breathing. Bennett was put on a ventilator.
Mary Grace was breathing on her own with the assistance of a continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, machine, Sease said.
Both babies received surfactant treatment, Sease said.
“Babies born before 30 weeks gestation do not have the ability to produce surfactant. The March of Dimes funded the research and developed this life-saving treatment.”
According to information about surfactant on the March of Dimes' website, mature human lungs are foamy organs, largely composed of tiny, bubble-like air sacs that are prevented from collapsing by lung surfactant, a fluid secreted by the cells of the sacs.
“The lungs are the last thing to develop in a baby,” said Meredith Repik, executive director of the Lowcountry division of the March of Dimes South Carolina chapter. “Synthetic surfactant is injected into their lungs.”
Since the March of Dimes funded research that helped to develop and make available surfactant treatments for premature babies, their survival rate is much greater, Repik said.
The first months of their lives were not easy for Mary Grace and Bennett, or for the new parents, Sease said.
“We were on a bunch of prayer lists,” Sease said. “Our family and friends all over the country and around the world added me and then the babies to their church prayer lists,” she said. “Folks would light candles for us when they attended Mass. I know candles where lit at the cathedral in Atlanta and St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York.”
Prayer cards with an image of the Blessed Mother were taped to each of the twins' beds the entire time they were in the hospital, said Sease, who is a Catholic. “And we prayed the Rosary. Our faith kept us going and allowed us to keep a positive attitude.”
Robert Sease, who has a 22-year-old child from a previous marriage, said he was actually more astonished by the news that he was going to be the father of twins than the ordeal of their having been born prematurely. Still, it was a tense time, he said.
“It is more nerve-wracking looking back than it was when we were going through it,” he said. “We were busy. Things were moving very fast. You really don't have time to think about it.”
As they watch their children, now healthy and happy, playing at the Mount Pleasant home of Mary Elizabeth's parents, Chuck and Fran Bennett, they both say they feel grateful to God, and to the March of Dimes, the doctors and nurses at Medical University's Children's Hospital and its neonatal intensive care unit.
Robert and Mary Elizabeth Sease said they are both excited to be this year's Ambassador Family for the March of Dimes because they want to draw attention to the work the March of Dimes is doing.
The March of Dimes was begun in 1938 by Franklin D. Roosevelt with the mission to cure polio, or infantile paralysis. The organization funded research that helped in the development of a vaccine for polio. In 1958, it changed its focus to the prevention of birth defects and now works to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, infant mortality, and premature birth.
This year's March for Babies is at 9 a.m. April 25 at Cannon Park, Repik said. About 2,000 people are expected to participate.
To donate to the March of Dimes, go to marchforbabies.org.
Reach David MacDougall at 937-5655.