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Women's Health

The Miracle Worker

The Doctor Who Delivered the McCaughey Septuplets Believes There's More to the Births Than Just Medicine

April 20, 1998|KEN FUSON | THE BALTIMORE SUN

The world's first glimpse of Dr. Paula Mahone came last year on the afternoon of Nov. 19, just hours after she delivered seven babies in six minutes and helped make medical history.

She sat at a table in an auditorium at Iowa Methodist Medical Center in Des Moines. Hundreds of reporters demanded an answer:

How did this happen?

"I would have to consider it a miracle," Mahone told them.

A miracle?

A woman gives birth to septuplets, and for the first time in history they survive, and the doctor who delivered them explains it as . . . a miracle?

You could see the eyes rolling. Well, yes, sure, but the mother was taking a fertility drug, wasn't she? And then there was all that reproductive technology involved, wasn't there? And really now, how can a doctor, a child of facts, chalk all this up to--what, exactly?

God. Mahone believes in God. She talks about her faith every chance she gets. Recently, she returned to Goucher College in Towson, Md.--she is a 1980 graduate--and, calmly discussed the marriage of medicine and miracles.

"I'll tell you," she says, "I don't understand everything, but God certainly does."

There is much more to 39-year-old Paula Mahone than what we glimpsed that November day after the McCaughey septuplets entered the world.

She is a woman of faith and a student of medicine. She is a born-again Christian and a feminist who supports abortion rights. She is a black doctor thriving in the middle of a state that is as white as bond paper.

Miracles, you want miracles? How about a single mother raising three girls in Youngstown, Ohio? The oldest child, the girl who wanted to be a doctor, was sent to a suburban elementary school. She was the only black student.

"It was a blessing in disguise," Mahone says. "All my life I'm usually one of only a few."

*

Only two girls in Youngstown took every college-prep course offered. Paula Mahone ignored the physics teacher who encouraged her to drop the course. Nurses don't need physics, he told her.

A college classmate of her mother's recommended Goucher. It was a women's school then; Mahone loved the place. She felt safe, unintimidated, excited by the variety of students there.

"I was a feminist before I knew the word 'feminist,' " she says.

After medical school, she worked at Emory University Hospitals in Atlanta, where she met her future husband, Ron, on a blind date. She then worked at the University of Rochester.

There were setbacks. It happened rarely, but there were patients who refused to allow her to treat them. What was it? Her gender? Her race? She didn't know.

"I get angry, but to spend a lot of time concentrating my anger on that would just be paralyzing," she says.

She says Iowans have accepted her; at least no one has refused her care. She has worked as medical director of perinatal services--high-risk pregnancies--at the Des Moines hospital since 1993.

The minority population of Carlisle, Iowa, home to 3,600 people including the McCaughey family, is fewer than 100, but Bobbi McCaughey and Mahone hit it off immediately. They had one thing in common: their faith.

"I would tell her if this had to be, God chose the right person in her," Mahone says.

But Mahone wasn't excited that first time that Bobbi and Kenny McCaughey--and their parents--entered her office. Far from it. There was no talk of miracles or God's great works or the power of prayer. There was talk of statistics and failed pregnancies and the health risks to premature babies.

"We did not disregard medicine because we believe in God," Mahone says.

And everything she read in the medical literature pointed to one outcome: "This was going to end badly."

Women just don't give birth to seven babies.

*

The McCaughey septuplets turned 5 months old Sunday. All the children are out of the hospital and are living in their cramped home in Carlisle, where a team of 60 volunteers helps feed, clean and comfort them.

Life has changed for Mahone as well. After delivering the septuplets, she and her partner have experienced an increase in business. She has been swamped with speaking engagements.

She remembers her first meeting with Bobbi McCaughey, the quiet seamstress who was 16 weeks pregnant with seven fetuses. When the reproductive doctor told Mahone's office, this was the reaction: "You're kidding."

There were no assurances then. Mahone assumed the pregnancy could not possibly last long enough for the fetuses to survive. She gave the McCaugheys all the information she had.

That included the prospect of selective reduction, or abortion. "I'm born-again," Mahone says. "However, I'm pro-choice and think that women have to have all the options. Sometimes I have resolution about this, and other times I question it."

The McCaugheys rejected the idea. As long as patients understand their options, Mahone says she can accept whatever decision they make. You can debate the ethics of having seven babies, she says. You can't debate whether the McCaugheys acted according to their beliefs.

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