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Florida's first set of surviving sextuplets celebrate their first birthday

WESLEY CHAPEL

The free diapers ran out months ago. Ditto for the baby food vouchers. Soon the complimentary dinners will stop. The free formula is still coming, but that could also dry up soon.

The Byler family will be on their own as the sextuplets prepare to celebrate their first birthdays with a Winnie the Pooh party today.

"I always say we'd be living pretty well if we didn't have so many kids," joked 30-year-old Karoline Byler, whose husband, Ben, is paid about $85,000 for running a Pepperidge Farms bread truck route. She gave birth by caesarean section Sept. 1, 2007, to Florida's first set of surviving sextuplets.

The five boys — Brady, Eli, Ryan, Jackson, Charlie — and their sister, MacKenzie, were preemies who arrived at Bayfront Medical Center 2 1/2 months before most singletons. With ankles as big around as their mother's thumb, they weighed in at 3 pounds or less. They joined then-4-year-old big sister Zoe, whose repeated requests for a sibling began the adventure.

Karoline's pregnancy and the sextuplets' births drew worldwide media attention, including an exclusive contract with Inside Edition. The community threw a huge shower, with sponsors donating baby gear. Gov Charlie Crist visited the babies in All Children's Hospital's neonatal intensive care unit.

One year later, media calls have dwindled. The Bylers did get a call from the Montel Williams Show, but producers wanted them to bring the babies to New York. No way, they said.

"It's been a fast year in a sense," Karoline said one recent morning as Eli and Ryan played in the family room and Charlie lounged nearby in a swing. The other three sleepyheads were still in their cribs. "They spent the first two months of their lives in the hospital."

The babies were released one, sometimes two at a time, with all home by Thanksgiving.

Charlie, Jackson and Ryan had to be hospitalized a few days for pneumonia, but otherwise everyone was healthy. Charlie and Brady had reflux and were put on medicine to curb the spit-ups.

Charlie, the most fragile of the bunch, is still on oxygen, but now needs it "only once in a blue moon," Karoline said.

Doctors tell the parents the babies are developmentally on track. Their due dates, had they gone to term, would have been Nov. 13. Doctors measure their progress based on those due dates.

"For being as premature as they were, they're doing better than expected," said Dr. Frank Demery, a partner in the group Internal Medicine and Pediatrics of Tampa Bay. The three doctors in the practice made house calls to the Bylers to limit the babies' exposure to germs.

"As sextuplets, they're expected to have a lot of problems, but the Bylers have accomplished a lot in their first year," Demery said, giving credit to the parents and their attention to hygiene and medical issues. "They are growing and gaining weight."

Eli, Jackson and Brady can scoot around the floor, a precursor to crawling. All can babble "Ma-ma" and "Da-da." Eli, with five teeth, has the most, but all have at least one.

At least the need for oxygen means the round-the-clock nurses are still showing up and being paid for by Medicaid.

But the nurses have turned into nannies as the babies have stolen their hearts.

"You're there for just one baby, but you can't not pick up just one baby," said nurse Judy Schwab, who spooned sweet potatoes and strained peas into the mouths of two who were seated at a table with six built-in high chair seats.

Because of the nurses, Karoline is free to run errands. She also gets the opportunity to sleep through the night "like a normal person." Volunteers also still pitch in. Two Girl Scout troops made the Bylers their service project, with one raising money for six weeks of maid service.

While a help, the nurses don't make taking the babies out much easier. Outings with all seven children are rare.

The most recent was a trip to the Museum of Science and Industry as a birthday gift for Zoe, who turned 5 on Aug. 14.

It took at least 30 minutes to get everyone and everything packed and loaded into the nine-seat Dodge Sprinter, which runs on diesel and costs more than $100 to fill up. The family became like one of the exhibits as people stopped to look and ask questions.

"Oh, how cuuute!"

"Are any of them twins or triplets?"

"Did you plan for multiples?"

The Bylers have heard all the comments before, but they take them in stride.

"If we were the ones walking by, we'd be breaking our necks," said Ben, who a year ago had the look of a frightened deer but says he now has the confidence to do just about anything. "We expected that. A lot of people try to touch them."

The experience has made him more patient. He used to worry more about being late.

"It's slowed me down a lot," he said.

Looking back, he is amazed at how much easier it has been than he thought.

"Things have kind of fallen into place."

Now, as the family readies for the tumultuous toddler years, Ben anticipates one of the biggest jobs he'll have: teaching five little boys how to go potty standing up.

"It's going to be really wild."

Lisa Buie can be reached at buie@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4604.

What a difference a year makes

Weights for each baby at birth and now

Brady
Christopher
2 pounds,
8 ounces
20 pounds
Eli Benjamin 3 pounds 18 pounds
Ryan Patrick 3 pounds 19.5 pounds
Jackson Robert 2 pounds,
10 ounces
17 pounds
Charlie Craig 2 pounds,
5 ounces
18.5 pounds
MacKenzie
Margaret
2 pounds,
9 ounces
15.5 pounds

Florida's first set of surviving sextuplets celebrate their first birthday 08/31/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 8, 2008 12:33pm]
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