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Three times the love

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Jalissa caught up with friends and community members during the Monster March

Due to COVID-19 and a high-risk pregnancy, Jalissa had to spend most of her time at home. October’s Monster March was her chance to catch up with friends and Luke’s chance to show off his dinosaur costume. Friends asked about the babies and they caught up on everyone’s lives. Jalissa was 29 weeks pregnant at the end of October, making the lap around downtown exhausting and the climb back up the hill to the car a slow trip.

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. 

Jalissa waited for Josh to help put on her shoes and socks

Once Luke was dressed, Jalissa moved the two of them out onto the front porch to wait for Josh to pick them up for her local doctor’s appointment in late October. Reaching her feet was a challenge this far into the pregnancy, so she brought sandals and socks out with her and waited for Josh to help put them on.

“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.  

The Olsens worked in advance to acquire supplies for their incoming babies

Knowing they had three babies on the way, the Olsens quickly realized they needed to acquire supplies early. Three carriers, three cribs, three bouncy seats, three of everything. Jalissa’s mom started a diaper subscription months before the birth so that they could stock up, filling a downstairs closet with diapers before the babies arrived.

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.

Brian Darnell returned to the room with candy for Luke

After finishing up the ultrasound and appointment, Dr. Brian Darnell returned to the room with a coffin full of Halloween bone candies for Luke at the end of the appointment. Darnell was Jalissa’s doctor when she had Luke and has developed a strong relationship with the family over the past few years. Luke loves going to visit the Darnell, peaking out of the door constantly as he waits for the appointment to start and often bringing a dinosaur to show off.

Jalissa and Brian Darnell look forward to her moving date and due date

For the majority of her pregnancy, Jalissa was able to attend prenatal appointments and checkups in Buffalo rather than in Billings. By late October, she was alternating between the two hospitals and her Buffalo doctor, Dr. Brian Darnell, was consulting regularly with her Billings doctor. During this appointment, the two were looking forward to November to figure out when she would be moving to Montana.

“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.

Jalissa cringes in her chair as Luke pouts and Daya does her homework

After a weekend delivery scare, Jalissa was able to return home for a day before moving to Billings. Jalissa’s mom Anita flew into town to help with the move and helped with packing, dinner and wrangling of kids. The night before they moved was Josh’s birthday, so presents were wrapped in between homework and packing while Jalissa tried to get comfortable and to keep Luke happy so they could celebrate Josh’s birthday with dinner.

Jalissa moved herself and Luke to a small house in Huntley

Just over 30 weeks into the pregnancy, Jalissa moved herself and Luke to a small house in Huntley with the help of her mom. Needing to continue working, Josh stayed in Buffalo with plans to come visit on the weekends. The house is just east of Billings, making a close commute to the hospital when she needs to be there. The bucket of dinosaurs was unpacked first to give Luke something to play with while the rest of the car was unloaded.

Jalissa was forced to move to Billings in advance of the births

Because of the distance and chances of bad weather, Jalissa was forced to move to Billings in advance of the births for her and the babies safety. The night before the move was tough on Jalissa as she prepared to leave the state and her home, husband and Daya for an unknown amount of time.

Jalissa sat down for a much needed break

After moving everything inside, sitting down to relax was a needed break. Jalissa and her mom took a break while Luke threw dinosaurs up toward the ceiling and tried to catch them - full of energy after sleeping for several hours in the car. The house was set up as a rental property but hasn’t yet been put to use by the owners who were glad to have someone enjoy it. Jalissa saw the house for the first time the day they moved in. Not only was this the most affordable option, but it made it possible for the family to stay in an actual house rather than spending weeks in a hotel or even an Airbnb.

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. 

Luke, Jalissa and Lisa Noteboom look out the window

Luke, Jalissa and Lisa Noteboom look out the window from the upstairs game room while being shown around the Montana house. The Olsens stayed here during their time in Montana thanks to Lisa and John Noteboom, who have ties to Buffalo and invited the family to stay. “It makes me sad I don’t know when I’ll be home again,” Jalissa said during the move on Nov. 11. In the end, they were in Montana for most of a month and a half.

Jalissa settles into her seat

Jalissa settles into her seat in an exam room at the Johnson County Healthcare Center, tapping Josh’s wrist as they wait. Josh stayed with the expectation that they would be receiving flu shots during the appointment, but ultimately they had to schedule the shots later in the week. At this point in the pregnancy, Jalissa had an appointment every week, alternating between Billings and Buffalo.

Jalissa rubs her back and walks toward the clinic

Rubbing her back as she leaves the car and enters the clinic, Jalissa tried to stretch a bit before heading into the clinic for an appointment on moving day. This was the second trip to the doctor in less than a week, and the frequency of trips to the clinic would continue to increase in the following weeks leading up to and following the birth.

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. 

Three miracles 

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. 

Jalissa kisses Everleigh’s chin and nose

Jalissa kisses Everleigh’s chin and nose after changing her diaper on the living room floor. Immediately after arriving home from Billings with baby Everett, both babies were fed and changed while Luke opened Christmas presents under the tree on Dec. 28. Because Christmas day was spent in the hospital with Aspen, the family opened presents a few days late.

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. 

Christmas is one of Jalissa’s favorite holidays

Christmas is one of Jalissa’s favorite holidays and she loves to decorate for it. Knowing that they were leaving their house before Thanksgiving and unsure when they would be home, they started decorating for Christmas early to make sure they could. The decorations started to go up before Jalissa moved. Lucky they planned ahead since the rest of November and all of December was spent largely traveling and away at hospitals.

Jalissa nurses Everleigh and Josh feeds Everett

Jalissa nurses Everleigh and Josh feeds Everett immediately after returning home from the hospital in Billings on Dec. 28. Luke worked on opening all of his dinosaur Christmas presents — keeping himself entertained until his sister Daya got home — while they took a moment to sit. Aspen came home a few days later, bringing the entire family back together in Buffalo for the first time a few days into the new year.

Photojournalist

Jessi Dodge joined the Bulletin as a photojournalist and a Report for America corp member in 2020. If you have ideas or comments, reach out at jessi@buffalobulletin.com.

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