Speaking from experience, Nkem Chukwu tells the Southern California family who just welcomed octuplets into the world to get a lot of help, a lot of donations and, above all, do a lot of praying as they cope with their new family of eight.
After all, as the parents of the first octuplets born in the U.S., Nkem and her husband, Iyke Louis, are the First Family when it comes to raising octuplets. Along with Nkem’s mom, Janet, and all their children, they brought their sage advice to TODAY Wednesday.
Nkem gave birth to eight children in December 1998. Though one of the six daughters died a week after birth, the surviving five girls and two boys are hale, healthy and happy at age 10. Along with their 6-year-old sister, they filled a considerable portion of the TODAY set.
‘Oh, my goodness!’Nkem told Meredith Vieira that when she first learned of the as-yet-unidentified woman who gave birth to eight children Monday at Kaiser Permanente Bellflower Hospital, her first reaction was: “Oh, my goodness!”
“They called me from California and said, ‘I want an address from you, we want to give it to the octuplets.’ I said, ‘Congratulations, oh, my goodness,’ ” Nkem recalled. “I told my kids, ‘We need to start praying for them, because when I had my kids people started praying for me immediately for the survival of the octuplets.’ ”
The newest set of eight may have an easier road toward survival than Nkem’s now-thriving brood. The California octuplets were born at 30 weeks and weighed between 3 pounds, 4 ounces and 1 pound, 8 ounces. While two of the babies were initially put on breathing tubes, the hospital says all are doing well — and could be home with their parents in eight to 10 weeks.
The Houston-based brood of Nkem and Louis, on the other hand, were born three months early and only weighed 10 pounds put together. The family sadly lost child Odera while still in the hospital, and it took nearly six months before the final child was discharged and sent home.
“It wasn’t easy because they were born preemie, and they needed support in every way,” Nkem told Vieira.
Surprises and support
Louis told Vieira that the California family may already have an advantage in dealing with their new, large family. The California parents believed they were having seven children — an eighth child came out of the womb as a surprise, spurring the staff at Kaiser to scramble to provide extra accommodation.
But doctors were unsure of how many babies Nkem was carrying until the first child was delivered — and a sonogram finally revealed seven more babies were on the way.
“Nobody knew exactly how many kids were in the womb,” Louis recalled. “We didn’t know — six, seven, five? The ultrasounds, they didn’t show the one side ... the kids were being shielded by the man upstairs.”
Fortunately, the Chukwus were blessed by an outpouring of support from their local community. Ford gave them a 16-passenger van. Vitally, a 5,200-square-foot, six-bedroom home was donated by the Federal National Mortgage Association.
But just as important, volunteers stepped up to help the overwhelmed family. Louis told Vieira that helpers came through to aid in “grooming, bathing, feeding ... they helped with diaper changes,” which could be as many as 70 a day.
The commanderThe family also had a secret weapon in grandma Janet, who, her daughter said, “coordinated everything.”
“She had nine children, although one at a time, so she knew a lot,” Nkem said. “When they were small, she would be feeding them and one would start choking, and they would call, ‘Grandma, grandma!’ They would hand over the baby and then [Janet] would use her mouth and suck it out.”
Smiling proudly, Janet told Vieira, “I’m the commander.”
The children, now in fourth grade, are an organized bunch. They follow Grandma’s rules — no fighting, no shouting, everyone pitches in and everyone prays together.
At 10, the Chukwu octuplets have distinctive personalities. Ebuka is considered the best student; her sister Chima is the tallest and considered the group leader; and the personable young Ikem, one of the two brothers, has been tagged the messiest eater.
Ebuka offered Vieira her own words of wisdom as the newest parents in the exclusive octuplets club monitor their newborns’ conditions.
“I would give them advice to keep praying, so that their children can live,” Ebuka said.
That the seven surviving octuplets have thrived in childhood has been a revelation for mom Nkem, given the nervous days following their birth when their survival was in question.
“They’re doing wonderfully well,” she told Vieira. “No medical problems. They only go to the doctor maybe once a year for a normal checkup. Other than that, everything is perfect healthwise. They’re very beautiful, handsome.”
Questions from viewers
The family returned to Studio 1A in the show’s third hour to answer questions sent in from viewers, as relayed by TODAY’s Ann Curry.
Nkem laughed when Curry asked her how big she had gotten during her eight-is-more-than-enough pregnancy.
“I was really big,” she said. “I didn’t know how big I was until I saw on video and on TV.”
Nkam added that she knew from experience the kind of relief that California’s new mom of eight must be feeling right now. “I know she will be saying, `At last, it’s over.’ She’s now free, she can be herself.”
When Curry asked the octuplets — plus little sister Favor — if things get noisy in their home, they smiled, then shouted in unison, “Yeah!” But octuplet Echerem added that there are advantages, too — like having a readymade play date available at any time.
“It’s fun when we play games, and when we talk,” she said.