Terri and Danny Levato faced yet another heartbreaking goodbye.
The New Jersey couple's premature twins were born Aug. 27 at just 25 weeks to a Utah surrogate. Too fragile to travel, the twins have lived since then in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) of University Hospital. Once a month, Terri and Danny have traded off flying to Salt Lake City for weeklong visits.
This week, they came together knowing that while 4-month-old Giulianna was strong enough to go home for the holidays, Nicolas would have to stay behind alone.
But hospital case manager Mary DeGross kept pushing, trying to find and fund an air ambulance for Nicolas. The family's insurer, Meritain Health, and Medway Air came through on Thursday, and DeGross called Terri at Salt Lake City's Ronald McDonald House with the news.
"She started screaming," Danny recalled with a grin Friday at the hospital.
"We're not divided in half anymore. … It's a Christmas miracle," Terri said.
She stood over her baby boy's crib, touched her fingers to her lips and transferred the kiss to his head.
"We'll be together, finally," she said.
And on Friday afternoon, the family flew home to Morristown, N.J. where their 5-year-old daughter, Giovanna, will meet her younger siblings for the first time.
"It feels complete. There's no words to describe it," Terri said.
Due to complications with Giovanna's birth, a doctor at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City had advised the couple against another pregnancy. He suggested an alternative: arranging for a surrogate to carry an embryo created with an egg from Terri and Danny's sperm. After Giovanna turned 3, the couple began pursuing the idea.
A matching company helped them find their Utah surrogate, who was implanted with their embryos earlier this year.
But at 19 weeks, the amniotic sac ruptured, exposing the babies to a risk of infection. The surrogate was hospitalized and gave birth to Nicolas and Giulianna at University Hospital at 25 weeks. A full-term pregnancy is 40 weeks.
Terri was stunned. A complication was just what she had been trying to avoid.
The couple flew to Utah to see the newborns, then began taking turns with the monthly visits. While it helped to see the twins, being apart was hard, Terri said. "It was a day-to-day thing. You didn't know what was going to happen tomorrow."
At times, she felt lost. "You're not fulfilled. I couldn't bond with them or take care of them."
By November, Giulianna was growing strong enough to schedule her discharge for December.
But Nicolas still needs oxygen for his lungs and eyes, and continues to need intensive care. DeGross kept trying to find a way to send the twins home together. She called volunteer pilots and nonprofits, but nothing worked out. Angel Flight estimated the cost at $22,000.
This week, she was still at it, arguing that New Jersey's lower altitude could reduce Nicolas' need for oxygen and speed his healing, meaning his stay in a NICU there could be shorter.
"It never hurts to ask, to see if someone will do something [for you]," DeGross said.
She urged Meritain Health to get approval for the transport, which DeGross said wouldn't be simple with people leaving early for the holiday weekend.
Meritain Health kept running the numbers, DeGross said, and decided it could be cost-effective to hire a Medway Air ambulance, a private jet that can provide intensive care transport. Nicolas will go to the NICU at Overlook Hospital in Summit, N.J., until he can join his sisters at home.
As the Medway crew arrived Friday to pick up Nicolas and Giulianna, Terri stood outside their room and hugged DeGross, thanking her through tears for her help. Then she walked over to the cribs to see her children before their big trip.
"I have you guys," Terri said.