By Airman 1st Class Gabrielle Spradling
460th Space Wing Public Affairs
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. —
“It was the worst day of my life,” said Capt. Matthew Douglas, Air Force Space Command logistical and support officer at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado.
Every pregnancy has its up and downs, however, sometimes the low points affect the rest of the lives of both the parents and the children. This was just the case when Matthew and his wife, Mandy, pregnant with their twin boys Dean and Luke, began to feel contractions at 23 weeks and six days, which is significantly shorter than the average 40 week pregnancy.
Mandy knew that was the day she would finally meet her sons, but nothing could prepare her for the journey ahead.
“There was no warning or insight into why they were born early,” said Matthew. “Sometimes tragedies strike when we least expect them to and when we are least prepared. That’s what happened with the pregnancy.”
Mandy’s pregnancy was cut short without any notice, leaving her to wonder what a full-term pregnancy experience would be like.
“I wish I would have been able to experience the full range of what pregnancy was supposed to be like,” said Mandy. “I always hear mothers complaining about their pregnancies and I wish I would have been granted that gift of being able to go to full-term even with the pain and emotions that I would have felt. It was ripped from me so I may or may not ever know what full term pregnancy really means.”
Matthew and Mandy welcomed two little boys into the world with great joy on Nov. 2, 2013. With Dean and Luke born much earlier than planned and underdeveloped, many medical issues affected them. This included chronic lung disease, the need for multiple heart surgeries, gastrostomy tubes for feeding and Dean had numerous brain bleeds and ocular nerve atrophy — a rare form of blindness.
Although they are twins, the boys deal with different issues. Dean has had aspiration pneumonia once before, he had to undergo surgery to stretch his esophagus, and an original nissen fundoplication surgery to reduce the chance of acid reflux and vomiting. The surgery needed to be redone, which resulted in many more complications.
Luke also had a nissen fundoplication that has partially failed, however, due to the life-threatening complications Dean experienced, the Douglas’ were not willing to have it repaired. Luke did not suffer from brain bleeds, so his vision has not been affected and he is physically capable of running around like a normal toddler.
It took time for Matthew and Mandy to figure out the line between parents and caretakers, especially for Mandy, since she stays home with the boys on a daily basis.
“We had 24/7 nursing care and we decided from the beginning that we would be the only ones to kiss our boys, so they had a clear understanding of who was daddy and mommy,” said Mandy. “We are their parents and we went to great lengths to ensure our role was clear between us and the nurses.”
Raising twin boys is hard enough, but having to maneuver around medical personnel while making decisions on how to handle the boys made life much more complicated for the Douglas parents.
“I felt like a boss more often than being a new parent,” said Mandy. “We got rid of the nurses as quickly as we could, and now Matt and I are husband-wife-parent-nurse-doctor-friend-lover-caregiver-punisher-and leader all in one.”
Another emotional challenge the Douglas’ experience is finding alone time. It is difficult for Matthew and Mandy due to their children needing more care and attention, and the lack of trained and capable people able to take care of them makes it even harder.
“Nobody else besides us and certified nurses can take care of our boys,” said Capt. Douglas.
However, the struggle of raising twin boys with numerous medical issues has brought the Douglas’ family closer and allowed them to grow as a unit, as well as individuals.
“Not only do the boys need us, but we need each other for sanity and love,” said Mandy, “Our situation just made this more challenging.”
The Douglas’ have fought through over three years of medical challenges, learning about being first-time parents and much more. They came out with two happy little boys and continue to work to provide Dean and Luke with the best life they can. Their situation changes every day and they work harder as each day passes to make life work and help the boys grow.
“I know they will become strong, independent, intelligent, mobile, gifted young men,” said Mandy.
Though only three years old, Dean and Luke have brought happiness to many, especially their family.
Even through all of the medical issues, nurses, surgeries and internal family struggles, Matthew and Mandy can both agree on one thing: they would not be in the position they are now if it were not for the Air Force.
The Air Force provided the Douglas family with medical care, the opportunity for Matthew to spend as much time as possible with his family, especially when the boys needed extra medical attention, and a support system that is the Air Force family.
“The Air Force has not only taken care of my twins, but it has taken care of my family,” said Matthew. “I owe the Air Force everything.”
With the help of the Air Force, Matthew and Mandy learned how to navigate the struggles of being parents to Dean and Luke, while also maintaining a strong marriage with each other.
“This tragedy brought us to the brink of destruction, but it wasn’t destruction in terms of divorce,” said Matthew. ”It was destruction in terms of what we longed to have for each other with having kids. We take things day by day, but I wouldn’t want anyone else doing this by my side.”
*Editor’s Note: This article was written as a follow-up to the Air Force Space Command Visual Storytelling Workshop, where the author traveled to Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, to meet with the Douglas family and highlight their story through photos.