They tried to track the helicopter on his phone.
Somewhere above them, flying through that dark sky, the tiniest of their triplets was inside an incubator, tethered to a portable intensive care unit, being flown to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.
The day after Hurricane Ian hit Fort Myers, Kat and David Blessing, both 34, were told their premature infants had to evacuate the hospital.
They sobbed as they let their babies go.
Luca flew out first, because he was the most fragile. With the pilot, flight nurse and respiratory therapist on board, the helicopter couldn’t also carry his parents.
So just before dark, on Sept. 29, the couple got into their minivan and headed north on the interstate, watching lights bleep on their air traffic app, not knowing if the highway would be clear, whether their babies would be safe or when they would see their new sons.
Every hour during that harrowing three-hour drive, Kat called the night nurse at Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida, where they’d had to leave their two other triplets behind.
Dylan and Emmett had been promised beds at All Children’s too. But helicopters were busy with sicker patients, and ambulances were having trouble getting gas, getting through the debris.
“How are they?” Kat kept asking the nurse, trying not to panic.
Their triplets were not even a month old, barely four pounds each, unable to breathe or eat on their own.
And now one was in the air, the other two stuck in an unsafe hospital.
“Any word on when they might get out?”
The Category 4 storm shook Southwest Florida late Wednesday.
By Thursday afternoon, five hospitals had to evacuate about 900 patients, according to the Florida Hospital Association.
Helicopters flew in from as far away as California, transporting patients to Miami, Naples, Orlando, Gainesville.
Around Tampa Bay, a dozen of BayCare’s hospitals took in 57 patients in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Polk counties. Three babies went to St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital in Tampa. The Orlando Health System, which includes Bayfront in St. Petersburg, flew four choppers that transported 30 patients, from infants to the elderly.
All Children’s contracts for one helicopter, which averages one trip a day, said Chief Flight Nurse Julie Bacon.
After the storm, four choppers made 17 trips from All Children’s, evacuating 22 children from Fort Myers. “It was the busiest we’ve ever been,” Bacon said.
“We were doubling up babies, two to an ICU box.”
When Kat Blessing went for her first ultrasound last spring, the tech told her, “Take a deep breath. Here’s your baby.” And showed her the tiny head.
“Take another deep breath,” the tech said. “Here’s your other baby.” The Blessings held hands and smiled. Twins!
“Take another deep breath … " the tech told them.
They both started laughing. Then went into shock.
How could they be so lucky? How could they handle triplets?
They met at community college in Fort Myers 14 years ago, got married in 2017. For almost a year, they’d been hoping for a baby. But Kat never took fertility drugs.
“Spontaneous triplets,” the doctor called them.
Over the summer, they bought bottles and board books, diapers and onesies, set up three bassinets in their bedroom.
They knew they were having all boys. Knew triplets often come early. But they weren’t ready when, at 27 weeks, one of the babies’ amniotic sacs ruptured — and Kat had to have an emergency C-section.
That was Sept. 8. “The day the queen died,” she said.
Since then, the triplets had been in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Golisano in Fort Myers, where tubes as thin as angel hair pasta helped them eat and breathe.
Kat and David spent every day at the hospital, watching their babies’ blinking monitors, talking to doctors, telling their boys everything would be OK.
Under darkening skies
After three weeks of worrying over their triplets in the NICU, Kat and David had even more to agonize about.
Hurricane Ian was spinning toward Florida’s west coast. On the hospital TV screen, they watched the storm head for Tampa Bay. Then saw it turn. “It’s not supposed to do that,” said David, who flies commercial jets.
Hospital staff told Kat she could stay there with the babies. The building had a generator and was built to withstand hurricane winds. David rode out the storm at their house on high ground, where they live with her mom, four cats and a noisy parrot.
“Somehow, thankfully, we never lost cell service,” Kat said. She was able to keep her husband updated from the hospital. He told her about their home.
Then, through the wide windows, she saw rising storm water swallow stop signs, cars float through the parking lot.
The nurses never got distracted, she said. Through it all, they concentrated on caring for the babies.
The power stayed on. But the next day, the water at Golisano went out.
Workers shut off the hospital elevator. No one could flush toilets or wash their hands. Kat was scared to touch her triplets. “I felt so helpless,” she said.
Nurses told parents they had to evacuate all 80 patients.
“We didn’t know when, how or to where,” Kat said. At first, they weren’t sure the triplets would get flown to the same hospital. “It tore us up to think that we couldn’t all be together, that we might not be able to get to our boys.”
David packed his guitar, Kat’s favorite blanket, and the library of books they had bought for their boys. When he picked her up at the hospital, she didn’t want to go. “How could I leave my little guys somewhere I wasn’t sure was safe, not knowing how they were going to get out, or when I’d see them again?”
But Luca already was in the air.
They thought Dylan and Emmett would be coming by ambulance, which was terrifying. The trip would take three times as long, in the dark, through areas littered with storm debris.
When the Blessings finally learned the other two infants would be flown out, they were relieved.
They got to All Children’s about 9 p.m., just after Luca landed. A doctor and respiratory therapist were waiting. Even after they saw their son, they couldn’t rest until their other two infants were with them. Besides, they had nowhere to sleep.
In the hospital’s admitting area, they waited six hours until they heard the helicopter.
“We saw them bring in one gurney with an incubator, and I cried, ‘Where’s my other baby?’” Kat said. Then she heard nurses cooing.
Dylan and Emmett were side-by-side in a single incubator.
The flight crew said they had slept through the ride.
Twinkle, twinkle ... twinkle
The Blessing babies each have their own incubator on the sixth floor.
Kat and David got a room at the Ronald McDonald House, where families of hospitalized children stay for free. They’ve spent the last week changing diapers, singing, “Twinkle, twinkle,” making sure the triplets’ tubes don’t get tangled.
Whenever one of the babies bleats, they rush to soothe him. They think they’re beginning to be able to tell them apart.
“They’re doing so good!” a nurse said Wednesday, stopping to check on the triplets. They have gained weight. Their breathing is better.
“Luca is small, but feisty,” Dr. Prem Fort told Kat. “They’re all improving. They’re preemie strong.”
Before they can be discharged, the babies have to be able to eat and breathe on their own. Kat has been pumping, for when they can take a bottle of breastmilk.
The Blessings hope to bring their triplets home in time for the holidays, to Kat’s mom’s house in Fort Myers. David’s parents and brother live nearby in Cape Coral.
The couple said they are fortunate to have so much family close enough to help. But after Hurricane Ian, they’re not sure they want to raise their boys in Florida.
“Too scary,” Kat said. “We’ve watched these storms get more frequent and so much bigger. It just doesn’t seem safe.”
After changing Dylan’s diaper and checking Emmett’s monitor, they went to see Luca, the tiniest triplet.
A nurse had removed the breathing tube from his nose. For the first time, they could see his whole face.
When Kat bent to stroke his cheek, he opened his eyes.
• • •
Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Ian coverage
FEMA: Floridians hurt by Ian can now apply for FEMA assistance. Here’s how.
THE STORM HAS PASSED: Now what? Safety tips for returning home.
POST-STORM QUESTIONS: After Hurricane Ian, how to get help with fallen trees, food, damaged shelter.
WEATHER EFFECTS: Hurricane Ian was supposed to slam Tampa Bay head on. What happened?
MORE STORM COVERAGE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.