From Hope to Heartbreak: the Pathetic Case of the Frustaci Septuplets


Myself .

 By T.V. Antony Raj

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Patti Frustaci, a 30-year-old English teacher at Rubidoux High School, in Riverside, California, and wife of 32-year-old Samuel Frustaci, an industrial equipment salesman for a Buena Park firm, had already conceived a child, a healthy toddler named Joseph.

Even though they already had a healthy child, Patti and Samuel opted for fertility treatment. From August to November of 1984, Dr. Jaroslav Marik, a pioneer in his field with a stellar reputation treated Patti Frustaci at Tyler Medical Clinics Inc., of West Los Angeles, where Marik was a part owner. He treated Patti with the drug Pergonal, a fertility drug used for fertility issues in women, especially women who are anovulatory and oligo ovular.

When ultrasound examinations performed during the following January revealed the presence of seven fetuses which meant that the fetuses had a slim chance of surviving until term. When Patti’s obstetrician warned of the possible outcome, and counseled her to have a selective abortion by which a doctor would remove several of the fetuses in order that the remaining unborn offsprings would have a better chance of survival. Being Mormons by faith, the Frustacis invoked God’s teaching and spurned abortion.

Patti Frustaci got admitted in St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California on March 25, 1985.

A 38-member medical team was constituted at St. Joseph Hospital to assist Patti’s obstetrician, Dr. Martin Feldman,  in what was to become the first largest multiple births in the medical history of the United States of America.

The average duration of a normal pregnancy is 280 days (40 weeks), calculated from the first day of the last menstrual period, with 85 to 95% babies born between the 266th and the 294th days. Common deviations thus range up to 14 days in either direction. However, in the Frustaci case, the medical team determined that the babies would have a better chance of survival if they completed 28 weeks of gestation in the mother’s womb before their birth.

Patti’s hypertension threatened to deprive the fetuses of nutrition. As a result of hypertension, the team of doctors scheduled the surgery after her condition declined from good to fair.

On May 21, 1985, Patti Frustaci was wheeled into the delivery room at St. Joseph Hospital.

Beginning at 8:19 am, the operation went smoothly without any hitch led by Dr. Martin Feldman. It took only three minutes for the caesarean section team to deliver the first septuplets in the United States, prematurely at 28 weeks. For Dr. Feldman, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The seventh-born septuplet, later named Christina Elizabeth, was stillborn, apparently died in the uterus several days before. The 32-year-old Samuel Frustaci, had a moment alone with the stillborn baby and held it as did his wife Patti after she came out of the general anesthesia.

The weights of the septuplets ranged from 15.5 ounces (439.42 grams) to 1 pound 13 ounces (822.14 grams).

About 10 minutes after delivery, to compensate for the immaturity of their lungs and immune systems, the six surviving Frustaci septuplets requiring a higher level of care were transferred to the adjacent CHOC Children’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at St. Joseph Hospital and placed on respirators and antibiotics.

At St. Joseph Hospital, where the babies were delivered and as Patti Frustaci remained in the intensive care unit, the switchboard was flooded with calls of well-wishers. Many of the calls were from new mothers offering support, prayers and outgrown baby clothes. Also, bouquets of flowers and huge baskets filled with stuffed toys arrived at the hospital.

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 Sam Frustaci visits with baby, May 23, 1985. The infant is nicknamed 'Peanut' (Source - corbisimages.com)
Sam Frustaci visits with baby, May 23, 1985. The infant is nicknamed ‘Peanut’ (Source: corbisimages.com)

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On Thursday, May 23, 1985, the sixth-born septuplet, David Anthony, the tiniest of the six Frustaci septuplets who survived birth, nicknamed “Peanut,” went into “respiratory distress” around 7 pm. The doctors were able to resuscitate him. He died the following day, Friday, May 24, 1985, at 12:34 am.

Peanut was brought to Patti from CHOC after he died, and she held him for about an hour. According to Samuel Frustaci, the hardest thing for Patti is the fact that she never got the chance to see (Peanut) alive.

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Parents of septuplets Samuel Frustaci and wife (Patti) leaving the hospital
Parents of septuplets Samuel Frustaci and wife (Patti) leaving the hospital

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On Wednesday, May 29, 1985, around 12:30 pm, wearing a lavender robe and cradling a bouquet of roses, a joyous Patti Frustaci emerged from St. Joseph Hospital on a wheelchair to the cheers and applause of employees of the hospital in a wheelchair. A jubilant Samuel Frustaci accompanied his wife Patti, passing a horde of reporters got into a waiting car en route to the home of Patti’s parents where she would continue recuperating while her five surviving septuplets remained behind at CHOC. A wagon full of stuffed animals attached to balloons followed her car.

The second-born septuplet, James Martin, who was in the most critical condition and had been given a 50-50 chance of survival died after 16 days on June 6, 1985.

Three days later, on Sunday, June 9, 1985, Bonnie Marie, the fourth-born septuplet, who for so long beat the odds against her survival, died at 12:25 pm. She lasted a week longer than they gave her.

All three infants succumbed to cardiopulmonary failure and arrest due to severe hyaline membrane disease, a disorder of the alveoli and respiratory passages that result in the inadequate expansion of the lungs.

The three surviving septuplets, two boys, and one girl: Steven Earl, Richard Charles and Patricia Ann, were on oxygen and medication to fight infection. Because of their traumatic birth, the doctors suspected that both boys may also have cerebral palsy. The Children’s Hospital of Orange County released them one at a time beginning in mid-August 1985 as they recovered from problems that afflict premature babies.

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Patti Frustaci holds her son, the last of her three surviving septuplets to leave Children's Hospital of Orange County.
Patti Frustaci holds her son, the last of her three surviving septuplets to leave Children’s Hospital of Orange County.

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Extraordinary expenses such as the cost of their medical care amounted to more than $1 million, offset only partially by offers of free food, goods and services and an exclusive interview contract with People magazine. As the infants died, many withdrew their endorsements and many offers never materialized.

The first birthday for the three surviving Frustaci septuplets was marked by disclosures that the two boys have cerebral palsy and all three suffer from eye, hearing and breathing disorders. The two boys had hernia surgery and all the infants attached to monitors that sound a warning when breathing stops.

Initially, the Frustacis considered the births as a “blessing”” on their family, but grieved the loss of four children. Then the reality of caring for three premature infants quickly became an ordeal.

Since they followed the Mormon faith, it stands to reason that the outcome of the pregnancy was God’s will. But since they could not sue God, the Frustacis went after the next best candidates, the Taylor Clinic and Dr. Jaroslav Marik.

On October 7, 1985, the Frustacis filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Tyler Medical Clinics Inc. of West Los Angeles, the fertility clinic that treated Patti Frustaci, and her physician, Dr. Jaroslav Marik who prescribed and injected Patti Frustaci with the fertility drug Pergonal.

The suit accused the clinic and the physician of failing to monitor fertility medication properly and to perform tests that could have indicated the potential for multiple births before conception. It blamed them for health and developmental disabilities of the surviving three babies afflicted with eye problems and considered developmentally retarded.

The suit also alleged medical malpractice, four wrongful deaths of their babies, loss of earnings and of earning capacity as a result of the overprescription of the fertility drugs. The Frustacis sought $1 million for current and future medical expenses, and $1.25 million for non-economic losses – $250,000 for each parent and for each of the three surviving infants.

The fertility clinic admitted no wrongdoing.

In July 1990, the Tyler Medical clinic agreed to pay $450,000 immediately and the three children would receive monthly payments for the rest of their lives. If the surviving three children live to a normal life expectancy, the award could total $6 million.

Dr. Marik, the fertility specialist who treated Patti Frustaci, refused to participate in the agreement. The doctor said at a news conference that he was not to blame for the plight of the Frustaci septuplets because Mrs. Frustaci was a patient who did not follow instructions and had a tendency to decide what she wanted to do.

On Monday, June 22, 1987, Patti Frustaci was driving from Las Vegas to Barstow on Interstate 15 with her three surviving septuplets. Her van got stuck in the sand in the middle of the highway when she tried to make a U-turn across the center divider. California Highway Patrol officers arrested her on suspicion of drunken driving. She was released five hours later on her own recognizance and her 2-year-old infants were handed over to their father.

On December 21, 1990, Five and a half years after the birth of the septuplets, the 36-year-old Patti Frustaci treated with the same fertility drug, Pergonal at another clinic gave birth to healthy twins – a boy and a girl, at Loma Linda University Medical Center in Loma Linda, California. They named them Jordan Browne and Jaclyn Lee.

Pathetically, the family broke up. Samuel and Patti Frustaci divorced a few years later.

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