Pete & Chasten Buttigieg open up about the health struggles their kids faced

Chasten (left) and Pete Buttigieg (right) holding their newborn children
The Buttigieg family Photo: Instagram

To commemorate the first birthday of their twin children, out Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and his husband Chasten shared details of their births as well as the health difficulties that threatened them in their infancy.

One year ago, the Buttigieges’ adoption agency notified him that a woman who had just given premature birth to newborn twins wanted to put them up for a “surprise adoption.” Though the husbands could make quick travel plans to visit the infants, the Buttigieges had received similar calls from the agency before, and those adoptions had all fallen through.

This time, however, they felt hopeful.

“Soon I was on a red-eye flight, and Chasten was on the highway,” the dads co-wrote in a Medium post narrated in Pete’s voice.

“Within hours of that first call, we stood in disbelief as morning sunlight beamed through the window of a hospital room, overflowing with indescribable joy as we held our newborn children in our arms for the first time,” the couple wrote.

The newborns — now named Penelope Rose and Joseph August “Gus” Buttigieg — each weighed less than five pounds and seemed so “tiny… utterly vulnerable and dependent,” the fathers wrote.

The premature children experienced non-specified “health issues” that forced them to stay hospitalized for two weeks. Shortly after the fathers were allowed to take the children home, the couple were still working out the complicated legal adoption process. Even more daunting, the children began to experience health complications.

Penelope Rose developed severe reflux which caused her “stop breathing and turn purple in a matter of seconds,” the couple wrote. Chasten once had to stop his car and anxiously try to her stabilize her breathing on the side of the road. Her condition also required the fathers to sit her upright for about an hour after her numerous daily feedings. All the childcare left the new fathers in a “completely new level of sustained sleep deprivation,” they said.

By two months later, the new dads had established a better childcare routine. But then their newborns caught what seemed like a serious cold: Joseph August’s skin took on a “mottled look” and a tele-doctor expressed alarm over how Penelope Rose’s “belly was retracting under her ribs as she worked to take in air.” The dad took their newborns to the emergency room.

It turned out that the children had contracted respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms. RSV can kill infants.

The kids were given oxygen for a few days before they improved and were discharged from the hospital. However, less than a week later, Joseph August’s breathing worsened and he had to return to the hospital.

Soon, things went “from bad to worse,” as larger groups of medical professionals congregated in the infant’s room, using words such as “serious” and “critical.”

The doctors first suggested that they immediately transfer the infant boy to a full-scale children’s hospital in Grand Rapids, about a hundred miles away, so that he could be placed on a ventilator. Soon after, a doctor decided that the young infant was in imminent danger and needed to have a tube inserted into his trachea immediately before being transferred to the hospital.

“To spare our emotions, he encouraged us to step outside the room while they did the procedure, saying ‘it’s not a pleasant thing,’” the couple wrote. “We clutched each other in a long hug in the hallway standing just outside the door, trying through tears to reassure each other over the sounds coming from inside his hospital room.”

Inside the pediatric intensive care unit (ICU) of the Grand Rapids children’s hospital, their son was hooked up to numerous tubes and wires connected to machinery and computer monitors.  The newborn son that they’d spent two months raising could now suddenly be gone, the Buttigieges realized.

Meanwhile, the nation’s transport lines were experiencing supply chain disruptions that threatened to wreck the U.S. economy. Numerous right-wingers began criticizing Pete, often making homophobic comments about his taking parental leave while the nation was in crisis.

“Work couldn’t wait,” they wrote. “My [parental] leave had already been winding down, and now I was tending to issues that couldn’t wait or be delegated. Sometimes, that meant… realizing I had two minutes to get into a Zoom meeting with transportation stakeholders, a phone call with a senator, or a TV interview.”

Finally, one week later, Joseph August’s condition improved, and the couple expressed much gratitude for the “village” of people who helped support their family during the child’s struggle. They also expressed gratitude for the numerous government policies — such as taxpayer-funded medical research and same-sex parental rights — that helped their child survive.

At their twins’ first birthday, the father’s felt hope, disbelief, wonder, and gratitude about all the hardships and struggles they faced early on.

“In one year,” the couple wrote, “you go from someone absorbed in your own worries, hopes, and career, to having fully faced just how much in life is outside your control — and how magical it is to spend every day with someone who matters more to you than your old self could possibly have dreamed of.”

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