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HELPING HANDS

WE WANT TO MAKE SURE PREEMIES—LIKE OUR TWIN SONS—GET THE CARE THEY NEED
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FOR ADec. 2 game against the Ravens, Falcons QB Matt Ryan wore a new pair of blue cleats. MARCH OF DIMES, a nonprofit devoted to the health of mothers and babies, was printed on his right cleat; MIRACLE BABIES AT NORTHSIDE HOSPITAL, a program supporting families of preemies born at the Atlanta hospital, was on the left. His cleats will be auctioned to raise money for both organizations, which are near and dear to the Ryan family.

It was a Tuesday morning in January, and we were getting ready to play the Eagles in the divisional round of the playoffs. I had my phone with me in our quarterbacks' meeting because I knew my wife, Sarah, had a doctor's appointment.

We'd found out she was pregnant with twins during training camp. We'd been trying for a long time, and we were happy and excited and nervous.

Twin pregnancies are always high-risk. Sarah went for what was supposed to be a routine checkup—then she called and said she was getting admitted to the hospital. She had a complication with her pregnancy at 24 weeks and five days.

I left the Falcons' facility around 8:15 a.m. and stayed with her through the next morning. When the doctors talk to you about the percentages of survival for children born at that gestational age, it's a terrifying time.

That week was touch-and-go. The Eagles game was a huge opportunity for our team, but I was most concerned with the well-being of my family. We had reassurances from the doctors that things were stable before I left for Philadelphia.

After we lost, I spent the next five weeks at Northside Hospital, room D8. The longer before the babies were born, the better their chances. Each day that passed, the amount of development for our boys was monumental. Sarah and I played a lot of Uno, which was a brainless way to pass the time. It's not easy being on bed rest for six weeks, but not once was she restless or angry.

On a Wednesday in late February, I left to get in a workout but got a call in the early afternoon. By 7 p.m., Sarah was in labor.

Our boys were born at 30 weeks and six days. Marshall was first, weighing two pounds, 15 ounces. Seven minutes later Johnny arrived at two pounds, 14 ounces. They were small but strong. Sarah got to hold them, but within 10 minutes of being born, they were taken upstairs to the neonatal intensive care unit.

We were fortunate to receive the care that we did. Sarah had access to medicine that helped extend her pregnancy. And our boys were able to get two rounds of steroid injections for their lungs so their breathing was good when they were born.

Still, it was a stressful period. They give you a window of time that the babies may need to stay in the NICU, near what would have been full term. Early on, our boys could be outside the incubator for just one hour every eight hours. We'd hold them to our chests for skin-to-skin contact, and we'd read to them and talk to them. That was really all we could do.

Each of the boys had a hotline number that we could call to check up on them. We'd call if we woke up during the night, and first thing in the morning. Any time we'd see that Northside NICU number come through our phone, our hearts would start racing. But the doctors and nurses are so patient, and so good to the children there.

Marshall came home first, after five weeks. He was five pounds, five ounces. A week later Johnny followed, just a bit heavier. I remember being able to fit each of them in my hand; they're nine months old now, and doing awesome.

I want other families going through this to know they're not alone. We're also sharing our story to increase awareness about ways to help babies who are born prematurely. This is just the beginning of what we plan to do to benefit Northside and the March of Dimes—and to help other families get the same care that we did.