The hospital room was dark and empty when Devon Burkhalter awoke. Memories of doctors yelling slowly crept into her mind.
The past 12 hours had been a whirlwind.
"They kept telling me, 'The babies need to come out now, or they won't make it,'" said Burkhalter, who was put under anesthesia for a Cesarean section. "I was terrified. I didn't know how my babies were. I didn't know if they were even alive."
- Former West Orange athletes' premature babies in NICU
- Devon, left, and Joey Burkhalter are the parents of Audrey and Joey, twins who were born more than 3 months premature in February. (George Skene, Orlando Sentinel)
- Fundraiser planned for premature twin's family
- International Drive
83 West Miller Street, Orlando, FL 32806, USA
Devon delivered twins Audrey and Joey, who both weighed about 2 pounds when they were born 3 1/2 months early in February. With premature babies susceptible to a significantly increased risk of death and long-term disability, they will remain in the neonatal intensive-care unit at Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies until the original due date, May 29.
"I didn't even know babies that were 2 pounds could survive," said Devon's husband, Joey.
Joey Burkhalter, 25, was the quarterback of the football team and shortstop on the baseball team at West Orange. He went on to play baseball at Florida Atlantic.
At West Orange, he met Devon, 24, during her freshman year after they chatted online one night as checkerchick89 and wildthang1450.
"He was the first big signee I had as a coach," said West Orange baseball coach Jesse Marlo, whose Warriors were 24-1 during the regular season when Burkhalter was a senior. "Joey was part of that first group of athletes that really put this school on the map. His senior season, they lost in districts, but they were a state championship-caliber team."
In the past year, the couple got married, bought a house and found out Devon was pregnant. Joey, a beer salesman, started to set up a big room for the twins.
Life was going according to plan.
"It was a fairy tale," Devon said. "I was like, 'Wow. This is actually happening for us fairly easily."
Until the night of Feb. 16, a Sunday, when Devon went to work as a bartender at Charley's Steakhouse on International Drive. She had been cramping, but doctors said it was typical because as someone expecting twins, her body was growing at twice the rate of a normal pregnancy.
This time, though, the pain wouldn't go away.
Joey rushed Devon to the hospital, where he was told his six months' pregnant wife was dilated five centimeters and the babies had to come out.
"I didn't think it was real," Devon said. "My mom was with me and I started crying, and she started crying. It was so early. I was not prepared at all."
Audrey sat lower in the abdomen and was born naturally because her heart rate was dropping rapidly and she needed to come out immediately. Devon briefly touched the newborn's hand before being put under for the C-section to remove Joey.
The twins were born 18 minutes apart, between 4:30 and 5 p.m. on Feb. 17. Audrey was 1 pound, 12 ounces and Joey weighed in at 2 pounds.
The neonatal intensive-care staff told the Burkhalters their survival rate was about 70 percent to 84 percent, Joey said, and gave a 45 percent to 60 percent chance the babies would go home with medical issues, which could include respiratory problems, blindness and learning disabilities
"When I went to see them the next morning, I was taken aback by how little they were," Devon said. "They don't look like a full-term baby. They have all their toes and fingernails, but on such a small scale.
"You can't do anything for them. I cried last week for the first time since the day they were born. it hit me that this can turn out good or bad."
Every day is a roller coaster, some better than others. The twins' heart rates go up and down, sometimes so low that their skin turns white because of a lack of blood flow. Last week, Audrey was diagnosed with pneumonia.
"They're in incubators 24/7, unless we're holding them skin to skin, which we can do once a day," said Devon, who spends at least six hours in the intensive-care unit each day and calls the nurses every night before she goes to sleep.
"You're constantly worrying. You hear one little alarm go off, and you're like, 'Oh my God.' Emotionally, you're just drained."
The process seems to be exhausting for the twins, too. Audrey, whom the hospital staff calls "The Pistol," yanks on her oxygen tubes and always tries to pull off monitoring wires. As for little Joey, he sleeps through most days.
"He might be like his dad already," Devon said, laughing.
Friends and relatives have started fundraising campaigns to offset medical costs, which the Burkhalters were told could reach up to $200,000 per child. Joey's brother set up an online donation site, and former Warriors football player Brantley Bostick is planning a roller-skating party and silent auction.
"Me and that guy [Joey], we had a little crew and would do everything together, just everything," Bostick said. "He's always been so strong. He used to quote 'Hook,' the Peter Pan remake.
"Whenever I was feeling down, he'd quote, 'Brant, you're doing it! You're flying!' I forgot about it till now, but I'm going to call him and tell him that."
The twins are gaining weight, now more than 2 pounds each, and reaching milestones. They had a cranial exam that showed no bleeding in the brain and will have their first eye exam next week.
"It took them a while to open their eyes," Joey said. "Now they open them up. You can hold them and everything, but when they look at you, it makes everything real."