Quiet: A word the Olsen family of Buffalo has temporarily written out of existence. Soothing instrumental music fills in the rare gaps between crying, growling plastic dinosaurs and stories of middle school. As night falls, dinosaurs sleep and middle schoolers retire, exaggerating the clash of calming music and crying interruptions.
For the past month, Jalissa and Josh Olsen have been working toward a new normal. While the world searches for just that, the Olsens’ normal has nothing to do with COVID-19 or even going out in public. In fact, the ease of staying home appeals to these parents.
Early last summer, Jalissa noticed that she felt a little off. Finally, after years of hoping to feel off, she was optimistic. One home pregnancy test later, her hopes were confirmed — she was pregnant again. Call it a mother’s intuition, but just as she thought she might be pregnant, Jalissa sensed she was pregnant with more than one child. At her first appointment, she insisted on an ultrasound to “make sure there is only one baby in there.”
Her suspicions were quickly confirmed — she was pregnant with more than one baby. In fact, the Olsens were expecting triplets.
“I was in shock at first, just utter disbelief,” Jalissa said. The couple laugh now about watching the TV show “Parenthood” and talking of the big family they assumed was impossible. The family of four, including Daya, 12, and Luke, 3, would soon become a family of seven.
The shock of triplets came not only for Jalissa and Josh but also for their physician, Dr. Brian Darnell at Johnson County Healthcare Center.
“That was my first triplets that I’ve ever taken care of,” said Darnell, who was surprised when he saw the second baby and then the third, during the ultrasound.
Jalissa and Josh were to join a very select group of parents: those who have triplets or more. Less than 0.1% of pregnancies in the United States involve triplets or more, according to the Division of Vital Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Having triplets comes with extra challenges, which Jalissa remembers learning about during an early “doom and gloom” conversation with her doctor. The list of potential complications is exhaustive, and some can be life threatening. Multiple-baby pregnancies increase the likelihood of preterm births and low birth weights, the necessity for cesarean sections, and high blood pressure and a number of other complications before and after birth for both moms and babies, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.
Unfortunately, Jalissa and Josh were not new to these risks. Several years earlier, when pregnant with Luke, his twin died early in the pregnancy.
“You just kinda celebrate every little milestone,” Jalissa said of pregnancy.
As the couple documented the pregnancy over the summer for friends and family with frequent Facebook posts and creative videos, the babies were growing. Every few weeks meant bigger, healthier babies to the couple: 24 weeks meant viability; 28 weeks meant more complete lung development. The average gestation for triplets is 32 weeks, making that the main goal: Make it to 32 weeks, the Friday before Thanksgiving.
“Once we reached a certain point in my pregnancy, I never thought there was a possibility that we wouldn’t be coming home with three babies” said Jalissa, recalling their growing confidence.
A high-risk pregnancy in rural Wyoming
Where a mother can safely deliver a baby is determined largely by the baby’s gestational age, according to Darnell. Buffalo’s hospital, which isn’t equipped for triplets, regardless of length of gestation, can safely deliver babies after about 36 weeks. Campbell County Healthcare in Gillette is equipped to care for babies after 34 weeks, and Billings, Montana, can care for babies after 30 weeks. For any birth before 30 weeks, the only safe option in the region is Denver.
The Olsens were left with two choices: Denver, if the babies came very early, or their goal location of Billings. As the pregnancy progressed, Jalissa swapped her local appointments for appointments in Billings, transitioning gradually from her local care team to the team in Montana.
Multiple-birth pregnancies require intensive monitoring before delivery, which small, rural hospitals are not often able to provide, according to Dr. Lindsay Admon, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, who studies health disparities between mothers living in rural and urban areas. According to Admon, supporting rural moms means more than just providing good care, it is about helping access “social resources,” — the resources making it possible to relocate when needed.
“Everybody has a mom, and you can’t control whether you are born in a rural or urban area,” Admon said when discussing what moms in rural areas have to undergo because of the distance to proper care.
“I think the mark of a good rural practitioner — one is being capable, but two, is knowing when to ask for help,” Darnell said.
For Darnell, who already had a strong relationship and camaraderie with Jalissa, helping her transition smoothly to her new medical team in Billings was important, and it was possible through constant communication. By mid-October, Darnell was texting several times a week with her doctor in Billings, and said they shared test results, adjusted plans and stayed up to date with each other’s assessments.
“The patient knowing that they have a health care team that is working together really well — I think that just gives the family confidence that things are being taken care of,” he said.
According to Darnell, many providers at the center in Buffalo are trained not only in rural health care but also more specifically in frontier health care — for the most remote and sparsely populated areas of the country, according to the Rural Health Information Hub. More than being rural, the county’s frontier location means it is miles away from urban areas and major hospitals.
“Certainly weather plays a tremendous factor in transporting a patient to a higher-level facility,” Darnell said of the challenges that winter can add to treating patients. In Jalissa’s case, the weather and the distance to Billings were two main factors in determining when she would need to move closer to the delivering hospital in anticipation of the births.
In mid-November, when it couldn’t be put off any longer, Jalissa, her mom and toddler Luke moved to a small house just outside of Billings. The trio settled into their home away from home with lots of FaceTime calls and a trip to Costco, stocking up groceries for a stay of unpredictable length. Two days after moving in, the challenges increased and 2020 caught up with Jalissa when she learned she was COVID positive.
Luckily, she avoided major symptoms of the virus, feeling instead the pressures of being almost eight months’ pregnant with triplets. The diagnosis also meant that Josh had to join Jalissa in her Montana quarantine to guarantee his presence if the babies came early.
Three babies, three scares
Just two days after Jalissa was released from her two-week quarantine and then 32 weeks and three days pregnant, the babies arrived. Everleigh, Aspen and Everett Olsen were born just after midnight on Nov. 24 — sharing a birthday with their big brother, Luke. Aspen May was the smallest at 3 pounds, 9 ounces; Everett weighed 3 pounds, 12 ounces; and Everleigh weighed 4 pounds, 2 ounces.
The next day, the family began what Jalissa and Josh describe now as their “traumatic” stay in the neonatal intensive care unit. The next month became a chaotic blur of hospital rooms, unfamiliar faces and endless stress.
“Pretty much all of them were near death for a while,” Josh said, as he and Jalissa fell into silence.
Everleigh became ill first — her kidneys were failing, and she tested positive for COVID-19. After Life Flight trips to Denver and eventually back to Billings, Everleigh was recovering. But the Olsens were not yet done with medical emergencies.
Both Everett and Aspen developed life-threatening blood infections that terrified their parents and extended their stays in the NICU.
Jalissa and Josh kept friends and family up to date throughout December with Facebook check-ins. Photos and stories were updated regularly to show the highs and lows of the month. In mid-December, Jalissa reflected on the previous few weeks and finished with words of gratitude — a common theme in posts from the couple.
“We want to thank all of you who have prayed for our babies and supported us through this time, it means the world to us. Even from miles away we have felt all your prayers, love, and support and are forever grateful,” Jalissa wrote shortly after Everett’s diagnosis.
Aspen remained in the NICU in Billings the longest, outlasting her siblings’ stay. Everett was released just before New Year’s, and about a week later, Josh and Jalissa received the good news. Finally, all three babies were home in Buffalo a few days into the new year.
About a month after the Olsens returned to Buffalo, the babies continue to eat and grow and the family of seven is starting to settle into the chaos.
“I think we are now getting into our routine with them,” Josh said.
The couple has found a system for feeding and even for getting some sleep. Most people react with, “I could never,” when they learn the Olsens have triplets at home. But Josh and Jalissa have learned to make it work because, as they tell everyone, they had to. It is just doing everything times three, they joke.
“It’s been really humbling, I can say that. It’s taught me the value of accepting help and asking people for help. It’s not always an easy thing to do, but I think we are pretty thankful,” Jalissa said. “We’ve just been really blessed by the community. I feel like everybody really rallied around us.”
Since returning home, support has come from friends, family, Josh’s coworkers at Mountain Meadow Wool and community members in the form of meals delivered, freezers dropped off and filled with meat, laundry washed and the house cleaned. Big sister, Daya, has learned to change diapers, prepare bottles and feed the babies — a big help to her parents.
“When it is really hard or when I’m so tired, I’m like, ‘Well, there was a time when we might not have been coming home with three babies,’” Jalissa said. “That they are all OK and that they are all here is pretty miraculous to me.”
As they considered trying to conceive again so many months ago, Jalissa and Josh knew it would be their last try to grow their family.
Now with the triplets home and all seven of them together in their cramped living room, Jalissa muses about the years to come. She thinks forward to the triplets walking and talking, going to the pool for the first time or camping for the first time, becoming teenagers and even having families of their own one day.
“I just feel like it’s cool that we get to be a part of their story,” Jalissa said.