At 51, mom has triplets Round 2: After raising three children, Vivian McDonnell of Bel Air delivered three more Monday, with the help of a grown daughter's eggs.

March 07, 1996|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,SUN STAFF

The day they implanted the fertilized eggs in her, Vivian McDonnell had never felt so protective. The Bel Air woman, 51, was supposed to remain still for four hours after the in vitro fertilization procedure. But, for a long time after the deadline, she didn't want to move.

This was her second chance to go through motherhood. After raising three children in her first marriage, and going through menopause, the Bel Air woman had remarried. And she and her husband, who had no children from his first marriage, badly wanted children of their own.

This week, Mrs. McDonnell became one of the oldest American women to give birth. She delivered triplets Monday afternoon at Union Memorial Hospital, with the help of her daughter's eggs, and hormones that tricked her uterus into thinking she was younger.

"It's made me feel very, very special, especially with three," Mrs. McDonnell said of hearing the delivered babies cry, one by one.

Her husband, Sean McDonnell, turned 45 yesterday. Both feel confident their ages will only benefit their daughter and two sons. Mrs. McDonnell is a certified public accountant, and her husband is a mortgage banker. They're already established at ++ their careers and want to focus on the children.

"A lot of this is simply a state of mind," Mr. McDonnell said. "They're [the babies] going to keep me young."

But like much in health care, while science has created a way for older women to become mothers, the medical community is split over whether it is wise. Some believe that being a parent is so physically and emotionally arduous that women in their 50s may not be able to provide the support needed by the time their infants become teens. There are also ethical questions about who is considered the mother, because a donor's eggs are required.

For Dr. Marvin Swanson, the Baltimore reproductive endocrinologist who performed the procedure, every case should be considered individually.

"This is a very solid family who had given this considerable thought before I ever saw them," said Dr. Swanson, director of in vitro fertilization at Union Memorial. He said he delved into all the issues with the family.

"She is in good health, her life expectancy is at least 75, or older," Dr. Swanson said. "Nobody has any guarantees, do they?"

The family had also decided that there would be no blurred roles: Mrs. McDonnell was the mother. Her daughter, Piper Jackson, 31, of Oklahoma had no emotional attachment to the eggs.

Mrs. McDonnell's age and the multiple babies put her at risk during pregnancy for problems such as high blood pressure and diabetes, but she was able to avoid both. Because several eggs are implanted during in vitro fertilization -- to increase the chances that one of the eggs will thrive -- multiple births are common.

The triplets weighed about 4 pounds each: Sean Patrick first, then Dennis Cole, and finally, the smallest, Leslie Harper. Although seven weeks early, they all are doing well, and, depending on how fast they grow, they are expected to go home in a few weeks.

Their parents never thought this could be possible until Mrs. McDonnell saw a television movie about a mother who carried her daughter's developing child. Too intimidated to call her doctor's office, she eventually called a nurse hot line, and was told that yes, with donor eggs, post-menopausal women can have children.

Physicians believe that the age of the eggs is what limits older women from having babies. Hormones can be used to stimulate the uterus and enable it to receive the eggs.

The McDonnells also were considering adoption, but that option also cost a considerable sum. They eventually paid roughly $10,000 to $15,000 of their own money for the in vitro fertilization. The National Center for Health Statistics doesn't track births in women older than 49. But across the country, other cases have been reported. Dr. Mark Sauer of Columbia University was the first to try the technique in a group of women in their 50s. He reported good outcomes. He also recently cared for a 51-year-old woman who had triplets. A 59-year-old British woman gave birth to twins a few years ago.

But such cases have drawn criticism. The American Fertility Society has guidelines that discourage attempts to produce pregnancies beyond the normal childbearing age of roughly 15 to 44. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine, to which Dr. Swanson belongs, suggests that physicians don't work with women past age 49, but they also say doctors shouldn't age-discriminate. The McDonnells agree with that. After two days of being a parent, Mr. McDonnell's voice already carries the tone of a father. "Open your eyes, Sean. Come on, you ham," he said, stroking the cheek of his oldest child.

"The journey is just beginning," he said. "It's going to be a fun ride."

Pub Date: 3/07/96

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