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For Brittany and Josh Labrensz, a difficult road turns even rockier

“The nurses kept saying, ‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint,’ ” Brittany says. “Our world had fully flipped upside down. But at the same time, COVID hit, and everybody’s world was different.”

Josh and Brittany with twins Nicholas (left) and Lucas, and their Labradoodle, Teddy.
Josh and Brittany with twins Nicholas (left) and Lucas, and their Labradoodle, Teddy.Read moreMoss and Clover Photography

THE PARENTS: Brittany Labrensz, 33, and Josh Labrensz, 37, of Point Breeze

THE CHILDREN: Nicholas Robert and Lucas Michael, born Feb. 24, 2020

WHEN SHE KNEW IT WAS SERIOUS: A trip home to Florida two months after they met; though Josh slept through his alarm and missed his flight, he made up for it with enthusiasm for sandcastle-building with Brittany’s friends and family.

Brittany and Josh watched their babies' third trimester unfold through the sides of a plastic box.

The twins were born at 28 weeks — an emergency C-section under general anesthesia that delivered Nicholas (2 pounds, 8 ounces) and Lucas (2 pounds, 2 ounces). Josh saw his sons for a brisk moment, barely long enough to fumble for his phone and snap a picture, as a nurse rushed them to the NICU at Pennsylvania Hospital.

When he and Brittany saw the infants later that night, they were intubated, cords dangling from their minuscule bodies. It was several days before they were stable enough to be held. “They felt like little kittens all snuggled up on your chest,” Brittany recalls. “There were wires, things helping them breathe. It was intimidating. It was scary.”

And this was before COVID-19 precautions meant hospital staff taking temperatures at the door, nurses wearing protective goggles, and a limit on NICU visiting — only one parent allowed per day.

“The nurses kept saying, ‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint,’ ” Brittany says. “Our world had fully flipped upside down. But at the same time, COVID hit, and everybody’s world was different.”

It had already been a winding road toward parenthood. Both wanted kids and fantasized about building sandcastles, boogie-boarding, and going to Eagles games with their future offspring.

They met in 2013: She was the woman wearing a Florida Gators shirt in her OkCupid profile picture, and he was the Big Ten alum — no fan of the Southeastern Conference in college football — intrigued enough to message her.

They’d gone out just a few times when Josh developed kidney stones and needed surgery; he felt moved by Brittany’s care and patience. “He impressed me as a genuine person, supersmart and funny and responsible,” she says.

They got engaged on the Cape May beach in 2015; Brittany was mystified by the drone that seemed to be following them until she learned it was being operated from the pier by a pal of Josh’s, and that it carried a camera recording the entire event.

They married in St. Petersburg — a pool party for the rehearsal dinner, a reception for 150 that included Josh’s relatives from North Dakota, Brittany’s Florida clan, and a bunch of Philadelphia friends.

“We were both looking forward to having a family,” says Brittany, an elementary schoolteacher at a charter school. They checked in every couple of months: “Are you ready now?”

When the answer was “yes,” it took a year of trying on their own before entering fertility treatment, starting with Clomid and accelerating to intrauterine inseminations.

Brittany became pregnant in March 2019, then lost the baby at eight weeks. Another IUI failed before she found herself, just after the start of the school year, looking at an emphatically solid line on a pregnancy test.

“Brittany’s hormone levels were really high,” Josh recalls. “I had joked, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if there were twins?’ ” At the next appointment, they could hear two tiny heartbeats.

The pregnancy brought relentless nausea during the first trimester, along with a rush to the emergency room because of bleeding in week 11. Later, blood work indicated the possibility of spina bifida; the couple panicked until further tests showed both babies' spines were intact.

The 20-week anatomy scan also showed that Brittany’s cervix was atypically short, a red flag for preterm labor. “My OB said, ‘You should stop working now.’ I felt a lot of pressure, sometimes pain. It was hard to tell what was normal and what was not.”

She spent the next few weeks resting on friends' couches. “I read a lot of books, downloaded a meditation app, researched every option for strollers and car seats.”

Brittany hoped for a natural birth with little intervention. But on Feb. 4 — the twins weren’t due until May — she woke up in the middle of the night with ferocious pain in her left leg. By afternoon, she couldn’t walk; her leg swelled and turned purple.

An emergency room doctor diagnosed a massive blood clot. The remedy: rest, elevation, and twice-daily blood thinners. They counted the days; each 24-hour segment brought the babies closer to viability.

And then, on Feb. 24, Brittany’s water broke. By the time they reached the hospital, she was 6 centimeters dilated, and the doctor said a C-section was the safest option. “I said, ‘What’s the timeline? Tomorrow? In a couple of hours?’ She said, ‘No. In 10 minutes.’ ”

“It was intense. It all happened so fast that it was hard to process it,” Josh says.

Days in the NICU stretched to weeks. Lucas developed three different infections, then got meningitis and needed a 21-day course of antibiotics. Nicholas needed to learn to eat on his own. Both babies needed to come off the ventilators (it took several days for Nicholas and 36 days for his brother) and maintain their body temperatures.

As the pandemic brought a tightening of visiting hours, Brittany would spend afternoons with the twins — after teaching her first graders remotely in the mornings — and Josh came on weekends. They became close with other parents whose babies were in the NICU, and Brittany texted with other moms from her neighborhood who were expecting twins. They were vigilant about infection control; for eight weeks, neither of them went into a store.

They brought Nicholas home on Day 99; Lucas joined him three days later, still tethered to an oxygen machine and a monitor. Now both babies receive early intervention — telehealth visits for physical, occupational, and speech therapy, along with lactation support to help them learn to nurse.

In the midst of a pandemic, Brittany and Josh savor the mundane: diapers, swaddling, bath time, a smile. “Also, I don’t get upset about waiting at the doctor’s office anymore,” Brittany says. “If it’s an emergency, you’re not waiting. Having to sit is a good sign.”