Charlie Whitmer’s redheaded, blue-eyed triplets giggle and crawl as they explore their West Town home. One stands up against a large front window, hands pressed to the glass, looking out to the street below.
There’s no shortage of people to help Charlie — a stay-at-home dad — with the awesome and inherently chaotic responsibility of caring for three babies. His house is often filled with visitors: friends, family and nannies. But someone is missing.
Charlie’s wife, Kathryn, died June 8, 2018, at age 31 from complications of a hemorrhagic stroke that she suffered a week before the triplets’ birth June 4, 2018. Charlie spent his first Father’s Day in the neonatal intensive care unit, watching over his premature babies. It was the day after his wife’s funeral.
He has since left his job as an options trader to focus solely on his kids. It’s not the life he had planned, “but my dreams changed when Kathryn passed.”
Through devastation, Charlie, 33, said he’s trying to find good. This spring he joined about 100 relatives, friends and staff members who cared for his wife and children at Northwestern Memorial and Prentice Women’s hospitals at the March of Dimes March for Babies walk in Grant Park, raising about $80,000 for causes close to his heart: maternal, fetal and neonatal health. Team Kathryn was the second highest fundraising team at the event.
A spiritual man who is used to working with numbers, Charlie said he doesn’t believe in bad luck, and that there must be a reason for his family’s profound loss. “You have to find hope, and you have to find some kind of joy,” he said. “All of this happened for a reason. It’s my job to find that.”
He said to do so he’s transformed his life, channeling the giving, loving and outgoing spirit of his late wife as a way to honor her memory and be a good father.
Northwestern physicians and nurses say they think of Kathryn often. Some attended her funeral and would visit the triplets in the NICU during their more-than-two-months stay. They reunited for the walk, and some are still in touch, checking in on the family in person or by text, or following the babies’ growth on Instagram.
“I’ll never forget Kathryn, and I often think about Kathryn’s family,” said Dr. Minjee Kim, a neurologist who treated Kathryn and wrote about grief and why she attended her funeral in an essay published in April in JAMA. “People talk about Kathryn a lot. She is very much alive in our memories.”
Photos of a smiling Kathryn sit in frames around the Whitmer living room, and close-up shots of the triplets hang on the wall. The boys — who are also identical twins — are Bobby and J.P.; their sister is Arden.
Charlie scoops up Arden when she fusses, instantly calming her. Later, he swings one of his sons by the feet — the move of an experienced dad.
“If I look back a year ago, my life is so different,” he said.
Charlie’s job as a partner at a trading firm required long days, but he loved it. Kathryn was an operations manager at SmithBucklin, working with associations for genetic counselors and pediatric nurses. They met in January 2013 at a Wrigleyville bar.
The two eventually became engaged and planned their August 2016 wedding. A few weeks before, Charlie felt winded during a workout. Then he noticed a large bruise after bumping into a door, and found another bruise he didn’t remember getting. They were familiar signs.
When Charlie was 15, he’d had the same symptoms and was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a condition that develops when the body stops producing enough new blood cells. A bone marrow transplant treated the condition, he said, and until he noticed the reemerging symptoms in 2016, he had been healthy. Charlie consulted several doctors and decided to treat the reappearance of the condition with medication.
The couple married but canceled their honeymoon to Greece so Charlie could begin treatment right away, he said. They also decided to speed up their plans for a family. Because of the drug Charlie was prescribed, the couple had to undergo fertility treatments to conceive.
They learned Kathryn was pregnant the day after Christmas 2017, Charlie said. “She called and said, ‘We’re pregnant.’ ” Because they had implanted two embryos, he asked his wife if it was one baby or twins.
“She said, ‘It’s three.’ “
Even though the couple had decided to implant two embryos, one egg had split (into twins), making three babies.
‘MY ENTIRE FAMILY IS IN THE ICU’
The pregnancy started off well, Charlie said. But on Memorial Day morning 2018, at 27 weeks, 6 days pregnant, Kathryn woke up with a horrible headache, he said. They were in Lake Geneva for the holiday weekend and headed back to Chicago to the hospital.
“I was in the waiting room … and someone came out and said, ‘Your wife has a big bleed in her brain,’ ” Charlie said. “At that time, I didn’t know anything about what a brain bleed meant. I didn’t know what a stroke was.
“And I had been sick twice, and I had beat it, so … we’re going to get through this,” he added.
At first it seemed they would. Kathryn woke up the next day, talking and joking, Charlie said. Doctors used medication and inserted drains to manage the swelling while also giving the babies more time to grow inside her. Kathryn’s water eventually broke, labor began a few days later and doctors performed a cesarean section.
Bobby and J.P. were 3 pounds each, Charlie said, and Arden was 2 pounds, 6 ounces. They needed CPR and were taken to the NICU. A doctor told Charlie his children would have medical problems. “I was in that waiting room again and thought, what the heck is going on? My entire family is in the ICU,” he said. “All four of them could die.”
He sat with his brother and cried. “Then I decided, no matter what happens, if Kathryn’s alive, I can do this.”
That night, Kathryn awoke from anesthesia. But two days after the babies were born, her headache returned. Doctors determined she needed emergency brain surgery to relieve the pressure on her brain. She never woke up.
Before Kathryn was declared brain dead, Charlie got word that his babies were well enough to travel across the hospital to see their mother. First the boys lay across their mother’s chest. The next day, Arden came to see her mom.
Tears poured down Kathryn’s face.
‘THE FRAGILITY OF LIFE’
“I can’t explain that medically,” said Dr. Kim, Kathryn’s neurologist who was in the room. But being unconscious and “near brain death … doesn’t mean she doesn’t feel” the babies’ presence, Kim said.
Kathryn was a special patient, Kim said, one she’d think about when she went home after work, and still does. When they met, Kim was a new mom, so she related to her and the family.
“Kathryn’s passing was really tragic for a lot of us,” she said. “I cannot compare it to what the family is going through … but many things about her case are still really hard to process for a lot of us involved.”
Kim said she wrestles with the mystery surrounding Kathryn’s stroke. It could’ve been a complication from the pregnancy, but doctors aren’t sure. She also struggled with whether or not to attend Kathryn’s funeral.
“I think, first and foremost, I felt like me being there represents the failure of us as a medical team. Despite all the things we did and we tried, we couldn’t save her,” Kim said. “I was wondering … how can I dare show up?”
Kim decided to attend after talking with her sister, a physician at another hospital, she said. “I wanted to say goodbye.”
At the funeral, Kim said, she saw photos of Kathryn in happier times. “It is hard to imagine what our patients’ lives were like before they come to the ICU,” she said. “Just seeing (Kathryn) full of life in all the photos, and all the people who came from all over the place to the funeral — I was just very struck by that.”
Dr. Alan Peaceman, chief of maternal fetal medicine, was also there — the only time he’s attended a funeral for a patient. “I just felt like I needed to be there.”
Peaceman said Kathryn represents a greater lesson: “We can never take maternal health for granted.”
About 700 women die each year from pregnancy-related complications in the U.S., most of them preventable, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And African American and American Indian/Native Alaskan women are about three times more likely to die from pregnancy than white women, according to the CDC.
“We’ve become shocked that this can happen, but it still does,” Peaceman said.
Charlie said he told Kathryn’s doctors in the weeks following her death that he didn’t blame them. “They are making the best decisions they can.”
Through organ donation, Kathryn saved six lives, Charlie said — a silver lining that fits with his wife’s character. “And she got to give life to three babies.”
For the triplets’ first birthday and the anniversary of Kathryn’s death, Charlie said he and the babies’ spent time together as a family, with friends. He planned to do the same for Father’s Day.
One day he’ll likely return to working, but for now, Charlie said he works on fatherhood. Despite troubling beginnings, all three babies are thriving, he said.
Before Kathryn died, Charlie was an introvert. He said he knew how to succeed at work or in personal goals, but Kathryn was the one who related best to people and putting others first. “She wasn’t happy unless the people around her were happy.”
Charlie said that in the past year he’s let more people in his life, “saying yes” to those who want to help him. His family, Kathryn’s parents and others come routinely to visit. It has also led to new friendships he calls “a blessing.”
Like NICU nurse Kelli Snider, whom Charlie nominated for a nurses award. In the nominating letter, Charlie credited Snider for teaching him “how to be a dad.” Even after the babies left the NICU, Snider remains in their lives.
“I always feel like after such a tragedy, people just go away,” Snider said. “I’ll probably talk to them forever.”
Charlie said that when he saw the scores of people mourning Kathryn at her funeral, and read cards from people telling him how much Kathryn meant to them, he realized what his wife was doing when she was alive: “She was investing in her friends and investing in her family.”
“She had figured out the important things in life,” he said. “There’s still more for me to figure out.”
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