It was midnight on November 8, 2014, when Jennifer Hall’s water broke. This was not part of the plan. The plan was: hospital at 25 weeks, C-section around 34. This was week 30, and Leo had other ideas.
Never mind that Leo was a 2-pound infant sharing a placenta with his two brothers who didn’t weigh much more than he did. The whole family — Jennifer, her husband Ashton, and their three unborn sons — had traveled halfway around the world in preparation for the triplets’ arrival.
“No one wanted to see the babies come out that early,” says Jennifer. She’d been more uncomfortable for several days and it turned out she’d been in labor. No one knows how long.
“I was really frantic and panicked and worried and crying,” she says. “Leo was ready. No one else was ready. My heartbeat was racing.”
It wasn’t their first carefully laid plan to go awry. Jennifer and Ashton were in the Philippines getting ready to relocate to London when Jennifer, feeling nauseated, exhausted, and “really cranky,” took a pregnancy test. “I thought I was probably pregnant because what else does that to you? Besides malaria.”
She was right. Still, she sensed something was different and she wondered if she might have twins. A few days after arriving in London, she and Ashton made their way to obstetrician Dr. Donald Gibb.
“’There’s a heartbeat,’” Ashton remembers the technician studying the sonogram. “’There’s a heartbeat.’
“Then the lady goes — ‘oh.’ She waits 10 seconds … she tears up and says, ‘There’s three.’
“They called the doctor in from a lecture. We were there for about four and a half hours.” Gibb explained the rarity of the pregnancy — “it’s almost unheard of” — identical triplet boys sharing the same placenta. In fact, Ashton and Jennifer only know of two other sets of identical triplet boys in the world.
Jennifer, originally from New York City, and Ashton, born in Colorado, met in Bali, where Ashton was working as a chef and Jennifer was food and beverage director for the same resort. They had moved together to the Philippines and had gotten married in 2013.
“We were dating for seven months, we were married for seven months, we were pregnant for seven months,” says Jennifer. They both wanted big families and to continue to live abroad. Following the Philippines, Ashton had an opportunity to open a restaurant in New York City. In preparation for that, they moved to London. After that they would be headed to the Middle East, then Miami, then New York in about 9 months time.
Jennifer’s pregnancy — and the rarity and risk of her pregnancy — changed everything.
“At least half of London knew we were having triplets,” says Ashton. But they had to make a decision. Gibb told them Jennifer would need care, and that this would be a difficult journey. Their two best options — one: New York City.
Two: Memphis, Tennessee, and the Sheldon B. Korones Newborn Center and Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Regional One Health. Specifically, Gibb said go to Dr. Giancarlo Mari, professor and chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. He and his team of medical professionals were doing groundbreaking work in research and practice, in particular with high-risk pregnancies. His main office is at Regional One, though he also works at Le Bonheur, Baptist, and Methodist.
They knew they would have lots of doctor appointments — twice a week, and a longer one every two weeks — as the babies and Jennifer were monitored. “You’re going to be really heavy,” Jennifer says she was told. “You’re not going to want to walk a lot.” Finding an affordable apartment with room for three children would be difficult. And launching a new restaurant while going through a difficult pregnancy, birth, and new parenthood …
“New York just didn’t make a lot of sense.”
There was one more good reason to go to Tennessee: Ashton’s parents. They had moved to Germantown nine years before — his father, Stephen L. Hall, was general manager of Ridgeway Country Club. His sister, Valarie Hall, was a sous chef there (cooking runs in the Hall blood, but more on that later).
Memphis it was.
Jennifer and Ashton arrived in Memphis in June, and after a lot of phone calls were able to get an appointment with Mari. When Jennifer was at 12 weeks, she came in for another sonogram and to make a plan.
“Often these pregnancies have problems,” says Mari. “One baby may die in utero.” If that happens, there is a 20 to 25 percent chance that others will develop neurological complications such as cerebral palsy. “Sometimes these complications can be for the entire life.” Another risk is twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome, when blood flow from one baby reroutes to the other two — a complication Mari and his team have done a great deal of pioneering research on.
“I think it’s one of the most challenging cases that an obstetrician can have. When we have patients like Jennifer, we become a team. It’s very important that they can call me anytime — I give them my cell phone number — I’m 24 hours available to them. And we worked very, very well together.”
Mari was straightforward about what they could expect. It was important, he says, to “tell them up-front what could happen in the pregnancy. These are the possibilities in this pregnancy — hopefully these will not happen.
“I think that everything has to be up front, in such a way that there are no surprises.
“I knew it was not going to be easy,” continues Mari. “In a certain way I was glad that I was dealing with them … but I knew that it was a pregnancy that could potentially have many complications.”
But in the end, it is simple: “This is my job, and this is what I do.”
Mari’s career combines practice — he estimates he’s delivered more than a thousand babies during his career so far — with research and education, particularly through his work at UTHSC, which trains many of the doctors working at hospitals and practices throughout the Memphis area.
“We are the only center that trains doctors who are obstetricians and gynecologists to become specialists in high-risk obstetrics,” says Mari, whose own training is from the University of Naples in Italy and from Yale University. He’s practiced on three continents — Europe, Asia, and the United States. From the beginning, the focus of his work, research, and practice has been the fetus and the mother.
He recalls that when he started his studies, “we did not know much about the fetus. At that time the fetus was not considered a patient yet, because it was unreachable.”
Fetal medicine was beginning to develop as a field. “I traveled to London — I was in Rotterdam in the Netherlands — and [in London] were some of the top centers for fetal medicine in the world at the time.
“It was in 1985 that I had the opportunity to start research with a new tool that became available to obstetricians.” That tool was Doppler ultra-sonography. Ultrasound made it possible for doctors to finally see and study the unborn fetus.
“The reason why I came to Memphis is this: The infant mortality was extremely high,” says Mari, and he saw that there was a gap in the sort of medical care that could change that. “When people talk about infant mortality, they think that the pediatrician deals with that.” But in fact, infant mortality “starts with the pregnancy and sometimes before the pregnancy. It is not just a pediatric issue.”
We never entertained the thought that something was going to go wrong,” says Ashton. The question arose: What if one is at risk? Do you sacrifice him for the other two? “That conversation was very quick, and poignant.” The answer: “We’re having three kids.”
In the first ultrasounds, the boys looked like “butterflies,” Jennifer says. “I guess that around 15 weeks they started budding out a little bit. They lost their tails, a tadpole before it becomes a frog. You can see little hands and things.
“And then it got really cramped. They never slept. They were constantly moving.”
Ashton talks about the boys’ personalities, which became clear long before they were born. “We got to know our boys in utero.” He and Jennifer even named them in utero.
“Once they were large enough,” says Ashton, “they established their little homes.” Each one was situated in his own spot inside Jennifer’s body.
Wylder: “He was dancing … or punching Colton.” He “lived low” in Jennifer’s belly. “Without question Wylder is wild, the climber, absolute extremes — he’s either the happiest or the lowest.”
Colton goes by his middle name, Bear. “He lived in the middle,” says Ashton. “Every once in a while he’d wake up,” push the other two boys apart. Now a year and a half old, “Bear is just a pure, physical being — he runs at you to hug you and nearly knocks you over … he will growl at you, and will lovingly growl at you.”
Leo, the smallest, the one who decided it was time to be born nearly a month early, “lived right up here,” says Ashton, pointing to a spot under his own right shoulder. “We wanted him to have a good, strong name.” His middle name, Robert, is after Ashton’s grandfather. “Leo is absolutely so strong-willed, if he wants to do something there is no stopping him.
“He is also the brains.” At eight months he figured out how to work the fastenings on his overall and how to get through a three-step security gate.
“We have a lion, a bear, and a wolf,” says Ashton. “And Jennifer’s a Scorpio. I’m the lone Libra trying to keep everyone happy.”
As Jennifer’s pregnancy progressed, she was consuming 4,500 calories a day and staying as active as she could. In early October she was admitted to Regional One to be observed until her scheduled C-section in December.
“They are angels,” says Jennifer of the staff. “They treat your kids like they’re theirs. They pick up the phone at any hour of the day or night. We didn’t have any major hiccups.”
Until November 8th, when her water broke, at just 30 weeks and six days.
“They did a quick ultrasound to see who it was,” she says. Leo. The medical staff wasn’t completely surprised, saying, “He gives us trouble all the time!”
“They put up my side rails and put me on an elevator,” says Jennifer. They whisked her away to labor and delivery and worked on slowing down the contractions.
“So, we’re going to have some babies,” was Mari’s announcement.
Leo, Wylder, and Colton (Bear)
were born at 4 a.m. on November 9, 2014. Wylder spent the next 30 days in the Neonatal ICU; Bear, 31; and Leo, the next 60.
Today, the five Halls live in a house in Bartlett. Ashton, who learned how to be a chef from his father, following him around kitchens as a boy and as a teenager, is working with his father again — in 2014 he was hired as executive chef at the Ridgeway Country Club.
The boys, as we go to press, are 19 months old. Amazingly, they are all now in normal height and weight ranges — Leo still a little smaller, 24-and-a-half pounds to Wylder and Bear’s 27 and 27-and-a-half pounds. They’re all within a few inches of three feet tall. Wylder is still dancing, Bear is still pushing, Leo is still strong.
The boys love water and books and fuzzy blankets, and their nursery with its three beds and leather recliner. And they’re plenty active.
“When they started crawling, everything went up,” says Jennifer. “Once they started climbing, everything went in the garage.
“Bear is taking his clothes off right now, and he thinks it’s hilarious. Leo’s always the first one to do something. He’s about three pounds lighter than the other two — he doesn’t eat a lot. He likes avocados and he likes cake. He’s not a big fan of meat,” so she mixes chicken with quinoa, mashed potatoes, or rice. “Wyld is such a funny little clever guy. He loves to sit in things.”
How are their parents?
“They’re my first children. I have no point of reference,” says Ashton. “You settle into varying degrees of exhaustion. There’s the giddy exhaustion, there’s the near-tears exhaustion, there’s the eyes-hurt exhaustion. It is nonstop, and my wife is just amazing.”
“You mix up words, you forget what time it is,” says Jennifer. “It’s wild, it’s a whole lot of fun watching them grow. I feel so lucky that I was allowed to be part of their life. As far as brushing hair and having clean clothes, that’s all secondary.”
The Halls focus on structure, on a nurturing, safe environment, on good food, and time outdoors.
Ashton, when he looks at the boys, sees “happy, just happy. They’re funny. I see Jenny’s best qualities — in the pure, unadulterated love of all of them — they are just love. I see all the potential in the world, the three of them together — what couldn’t they do?”
There’s still monitoring to do — autism could still show up, and they’re watching for that until the boys turn three. But they are healthy. “We haven’t even had an ear infection,” says Jennifer.
“I think the last time when I saw them was when they were a year old,” says Mari. “It was their birthday party. They are beautiful.”
He laughs slightly to himself. “When we have this kind of success, we feel worth for what we are doing. There are no words that can explain what you feel.”